James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Rhetorical devices

  • It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year! SOTU Edition

    What a year-six State of the Union address sounds like

    Harry Truman's State of the Union, 63 years ago. Truman gave the first televised SOTU, in 1947, and the longest one ever, at around 25,000 words, in 1951. (Byron Rollins/Associated Press)

    Since the dawn of time, or at least through the past few presidencies, after each State of the Union address I have hammered out an annotated version of the speech. Generally these have reflected the wizened "OK, here is the trick of how he saws the lady in half" view of someone who has been involved in producing some of these performance and has seen all too many of them.

    For instance, here is a sample from a SOTU early in George W. Bush's term, with his 2003 speech. Comments in italics:

    Jobs are created when the economy grows; the economy grows when Americans have more money to spend and invest; and the best, fairest way to make sure Americans have that money is not to tax it away in the first place. [Good politicians define problems in ways that make their preferred solutions seem the only logical choices. No one of any party could disagree with the first two parts of this sentence. With the third, the President moves toward the solution he has in mind.] 

    Although, as I noted at the time, that same speech was clearly laying the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq that began five weeks later, I didn't realize in real time the significance of this 16-word passage late in the speech:

    The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production. Saddam Hussein has not credibly explained these activities. 

    Those 16 words became the heart of the "doctored intelligence" complaint about the oversold case for war in Iraq.

    And here is the latest one, from a year ago, when Barack Obama made his first big appearance since his easy reelection but was girding (as he is now) for showdowns with the Congress:

    Let's set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future.  And let's do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors.  The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.  [One of the clearest partisan-divide moments. Biden and all the Democrats shoot out of their chairs and cheer. Boehner  sits expressionless and does not clap.]

    Let's agree, right here, right now, to keep the people's government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America. [Now this is remarkable. One of the tricks of SOTU drafting is to construct sentences that force the other side to join in the applause, because you've ended the sentence on some "U-S-A! U-S-A!" type of line. Which is what Obama has done here: Who can possibly be against upholding the full faith and credit of the United States? The remarkable part is that the congressional GOP has decided it is not going to applaude this line. So we have the odd spectacle of Democrats, led by Biden, up and cheering for America paying its bills -- while the speaker of the House and other members of his party remain seated and un-applauding.]

    Through the past few years we've done the annotations with fancy popups, as you will see with that 2013 speech and its recent predecessors.

    For technical reasons involving our new blogging platform, and also on the "enough is enough" principle, I won't be doing an annotated SOTU this year. Instead I'll refer you, for amusement and reference, to three previous "year-six" SOTUs that came at comparable points in previous administrations. They are:

    Challenger, 28 years ago today.

    Ronald Reagan, 1986, which was delayed a week because of the space shuttle Challenger disaster on the day originally scheduled for the speech. The full text is here, and it begins with tributes to the Challenger astronauts and also—those were the days!—to Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, who was in his final term of service. About 3,500 words long.

    Bill Clinton 1998, which occurred just as the first Monica Lewinsky reports were circulating. Clinton's topics were variants of this "Bridge to the 21st Century" themes. To read it is to take an amazing trip back to the politics of those times. E.g.:

    We have moved past the sterile debate between those who say government is the enemy and those who say government is the answer. My fellow Americans, we have found a third way. We have the smallest Government in 35 years, but a more progressive one. We have a smaller Government, but a stronger Nation. We are moving steadily toward an even stronger America in the 21st century: an economy that offers opportunity, a society rooted in responsibility, and a nation that lives as a community.

    This speech is more than twice as long as Reagan's, nearly 7,500 words. The losses Clinton noted at the start were two congressmen from California, Walter Capps and Sonny Bono.

    George Bush 2006, Bush also began by noting a loss: the death of Coretta Scott King. Then his speech moved onto the same boundless-expansionist territory as his second inaugural address one year earlier. E.g.:

    Abroad, our Nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal: We seek the end of tyranny in our world. 

    Bush was between the other two-term presidents in length, with a speech of about 5,400 words. Here is my annotated version of that one. 

    Please study, compare, contrast—and understand the precedents through which Obama's speech should be assessed. If this makes you so interested that you want to read through the whole SOTU archives, a great place to find them is in the archives of the American Presidency Project of UC Santa Barbara.

  • For Memorial Day, Another 'End the War on Terror' Speech

    A message I have been waiting to hear.

    There's a connection between two themes I've been hitting hard recently: the surprising extension of "stop and frisk" inspections into the general-aviation world, and Barack Obama's announcement that the time had come formally to end the "war on terror."

    The connection is that events in the first category -- overreach of the security state, at home and abroad -- are reflections of the second development: the 11-plus years of "permanent emergency" in America's rhetoric and laws about terrorist threats. In this war like many previous ones, "normal" Constitutional constraints and checks-and-balances were suspended. But all previous wars ended. Until this week, no president or serious presidential contender had argued that, for the health of America's democracy, it was time to end this one too. 

    In his speech this week, Obama quoted James Madison to the same effect: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." Seven years ago, in the issue shown below, I tried to imagine what a future speech like Obama's would sound like. This was its [imagined] peroration:

    DeclaringVictory.jpg"My fellow Americans, we have achieved something almost no one thought possible five years ago. The nation did not suffer the quick follow-up attacks so many people feared and expected. Our troops found the people who were responsible for the worst attack ever on our soil. We killed many, we captured more, and we placed their leaders in a position where they could not direct the next despicable attack on our people--and where the conscience of the world's people, of whatever faith, has turned against them for their barbarism. They have been a shame to their own great faith, and to all other historic standards of decency.

    "Achieving this victory does not mean the end of threats. Life is never free of dangers. I wish I could tell you that no American will ever again be killed or wounded by a terrorist--and that no other person on this earth will be either. But I cannot say that, and you could not believe me if I did. Life brings risk--especially life in an open society, like the one that people of this land have sacrificed for centuries to create.

    "We have achieved a great victory, and for that we can give thanks--above all to our troops. We will be at our best if we do not let fear paralyze or obsess us. We will be at our best if we instead optimistically and enthusiastically begin the next chapter in our nation's growth. We will deal with the struggles of our time. These include coping with terrorism, but also recognizing the huge shifts in power and resulting possibilities in Asia, in Latin America, in many other parts of the world. We will recognize the challenges of including the people left behind in the process of global development--people in the Middle East, in Africa, even in developed countries like our own. The world's scientists have never before had so much to offer, so fast--and humanity has never needed their discoveries more than we do now, to preserve the world's environment, to develop new sources of energy, to improve the quality of people's lives in every corner of the globe, to contain the threats that modern weaponry can put into the hands of individuals or small groups.

    "The great organizing challenge of our time includes coping with the threat of bombings and with the political extremism that lies behind it. That is one part of this era's duty. But it is not the entirety. History will judge us on our ability to deal with the full range of this era's challenges--and opportunities. With quiet pride, we recognize the victory we have won. And with the determination that has marked us through our nation's history, we continue the pursuit of our American mission, undeterred by the perils that we will face." [End of imagined speech. Note: no 'God Bless America' ending.]

    Different leaders will choose different words. But the message--of realism, of courage, and of optimism despite life's difficulties--is one we need to hear.

    The different leader of 2013 did indeed choose different words. But the essence of his message was one I have been waiting for a long time to hear.
    In-house note: That September 2006 issue, with its cover story rashly announcing "We Win," was the first one fully under James Bennet's control after he arrived as editor. By the time he got here I had already begun work on this "declare victory" article.

    It was a very gutsy choice for him to stick with that story, and that claim, as the cover of one of his early issues. What if some big bomb went off somewhere just before or after the issue appeared? By the strict logic of the story, that "shouldn't" matter. In the story I took great pains to explain, quoting many historians and experts in the long arc of terrorism, that attacks probably would continue, as other disasters and misfortunes do. Nonetheless (I said) we shouldn't let that blind us to the damage done by an open-ended state of war. That's fine as far as logic goes -- but in the real, trans-logical world of emotion and buzz, we unavoidably would have looked bad, "Dewey Beats Truman"-style. The risk was all the greater with a new editor's first issue, and even more so when the writer (me) had moved to China as soon as the article was done but before it had appeared. I have always been grateful for the guts of James Bennet's choice to go ahead. 

    It may seem the exact opposite of gutsy to compliment one's own editor for promoting one's own article; I recognize that. But because so many people assume the worst about the choices journalists make, I thought it was worth letting people outside our office know about this one.
  • Why 'Turd Blossom' Is Metaphor but Not Metonym

    The same is true of "blood-sucking leeches."


    Let's have fun with metonymy! I got into this thicket with an early scene in my new profile of Jerry Brown. Here I was trying to convey the interesting/odd experience of talking with the man:

    "Do you know what 'metonym' means?" [Brown] asked out of the blue one time. Unfortunately, I didn't. (To spare you my embarrassment: it's a name used as a reference for something else, like "K Street" for Washington's lobbying culture, or "Silicon Valley" for the tech industry.) The surprise, coming from a politician, was that he was actually asking for information rather than testing me or pretending he already knew. "Me neither," he said after my admission, "but I know it's very big with the deconstructionists." I did better when he asked whether I knew where the phrase "no country for old men" had come from. Yes! It's the first line of Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium," which became the title of a novel by Cormac McCarthy, which was in turn the basis for a 2007 movie by the Coen brothers. Brown said that he was wondering because he'd just talked with a Washington media grandee* who used the phrase without knowing that it had any history. "Jerry didn't know there was a movie," his wife [Anne Gust Brown] said.
    Now the readers weigh in. First, from Graham Culbertson of the department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC - Chapel Hill. He said he liked the piece, but:
    I thought I'd take a moment to explain metonym a little more, in case you were interested. Your definition is right but might be a little misleading, while your examples are perfect.

    It really only makes sense to talk about metonymy in reference to metaphor. You say a metonym is "a name used as a reference for something else."  That's true, but only part of the story. A metaphor is also a name used as a reference for something else. The difference is that a metonym has a real connection to the thing being referenced, whereas a metaphor has only an imagined connection.

    If I call the lobbying industry "K Street," that's metonym, because K Street has a literal connection to lobbying. But if I call the lobbying industry "the blood-sucking leeches of American democracy," that's metaphor. They are symbolically connected to blood-sucking leeches, but there is no literal connection. A Karl Rove example: Calling Rove "Turd Blossom" is metaphor - he's not actually a flower. Calling him "the Brain" or "Bush's Brain" is metonymy - he is famous for his use of his brain. That last example is the most common type of metonym, synecdoche, when something is referred to by one of its parts. When you say "we need ten head of cattle," or "they need more arms in the bullpen," or "that movie got asses into seats," you are taking a full thing (a cow, a pitcher, an audience member) and using a part of it as its name (head, arm, ass). (Hopefully "ass" is ok to use if you quote this in your blog, as long as no children are forced to read it in-flight).

    Finally, the reason why deconstructionists were obsessed with metonymy is that they were obsessed with how language tried to but failed to capture reality. Metonym, which seems to come closer to capturing the "real" thing that metaphor, was thus particularly interesting.
    Noted! And now, from Dean Rowan of UC Berkeley Law School (Dean is his name, not his title):
    Thumbnail image for Metonym-Release.jpgI suspect mine will not be the only comment you receive about the metonym passage in your Brown profile. There are at least a couple problems with your account.

    First, your definition is essentially correct, yet meaninglessly so. A metonym does indeed involve substitution of one word or phrase for another, but its significance is in how the two terms are related. From OED's entry for "metonymy": " the action of substituting for a word or phrase denoting an object, action, institution, etc., a word or phrase denoting a property or something associated with it; an instance of this" (my emphasis). K Street is a metonym for DC lobbyists, because many of lobbying firms reside there and, consequently, the street is commonly associated with the practice. Similarly, Silicon Valley and the tech industry. Neither of these involves mere substitution of one phrase for another.

    Second, Gov. Brown's reference to "deconstructionists" is misleading. Indeed, some scholars associated, for better or worse, with deconstruction as an approach to literary theory did enjoy parsing tropes in texts, and metonymy is a widely deployed trope. Paul de Man was perhaps the most famous example of such a scholar. But having more than a passing interest in rhetorical analysis does not make one a "deconstructionist," and, conversely, many "deconstructionists" don't especially care about it at all.
    I wrote back saying thanks for the clarification -- and offering a clarification in my own defense. I hadn't said that metonym was a "substitute" for a real name. Rather, I'd said it was a "reference." In reply Rowan writes:
    Well, yes, "reference" affords a degree of wiggle room. But my point is that "metonymy" specifies a particular referential relationship of association or adjacency not precisely indicated by other tropes, such as synecdoche, which specifies part-for-whole or vice-versa. We refer to judges as "the bench" (an adjacent object) and sometimes to the President as "the White House" (also related by adjacency), but (because I'm at a loss just now for an example, I choose one from Wikipedia) a "wood" as a particular golf club (referring by synecdoche to the wooden part of the club). Each is indeed a reference, but if you're going to ask, "What is a 'metonym'?," you're not looking merely for the aspect of reference. You want to know how that reference is effected. (A shoelace is a thing, but being told as much doesn't really help one define the object. Similarly, metonymy involves reference, but being told as much doesn't tell one how metonymy refers.) 

    This is longstanding technical jargon, not by any means exclusively deployed by those literary theory folks from the '60s through the '80s or '90s who went a little nuts pitting metonymy against metaphor against synecdoche, and so on. (Don't even get me started on chiasmus.) Systematic rhetorical analysis harkens back at least to medieval thinkers,who were determined to classify these modes of reference, and far more ambitiously than "deconstructionists."
    At least I know about chiasmus! I've even written about it right here.

    * I am feeling particularly big-spirited in not naming the "Washington media grandee" in the No Country episode, whose identity I learned in off-the-record circumstances. Or maybe I am just feeling canny. (Top picture from here; other one from here.)
  • The Impossibility of Being Barack Obama

    Every now and then we see how hard his balancing act is.

    I half-heard the president's commencement address at Morehouse when coming back to D.C. this weekend. I saw a clip of it again late last night and thought: this is another sample and reminder of Barack Obama's reserves of rhetorical strength. Like his other big, punctuating speeches (as I have discussed previously here, here, here, and elsewhere), this one appealed to both the mind and the heart; it built an argument over a span of paragraphs rather than in isolated phrases; and it grew from Obama's position as a man part of, but also apart from, America's normal racial classifications.

    Before I had a chance to write anything about the speech, I read two other reactions. One was from my former colleague Andrew Sullivan, who was defending the speech against idiotic accusations that it was "race-baiting" and too black. The other was from my current Atlantic colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, who criticized the speech for being too hectoring of Obama's Morehouse audience in a way he wouldn't have been at Dartmouth or Stanford:

    Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of "all America," but he also is singularly the scold of "black America."

    As I told Ta-Nehisi by phone this evening, I naturally cut Obama more slack on this point than he does. (And of course I hear the speech differently too.) We all take a different tone in setting expectations for "our own." I can hold Americans overseas to a different standard than I would Russians or Japanese; I can harangue (and have!) my colleagues in the press about why we should do better; I expect something from myself and my kids I wouldn't expect from you and your kids, and so on. The challenge for Obama, exactly as Ta-Nehisi pointed out, is that he is simultaneously addressing all Americans as his own (apart from those who consider him alien) while also in this speech addressing as his own the most historically distinct subset of our population.

    So, I was glad to see Andrew Sullivan's defense; and I understood the logic of Ta-Nehisi Coates's frustrated criticism. Which led me to the main conclusion: about the near-impossibility of the tightrope act Barack Obama is attempting as America's first non-white president, and the unusual combination of virtuosity (as with this speech) and unflappability (as with criticism of the speech) with which he has mainly carried it off.

    I increasingly think of Obama as walking a tiny, little rope suspended across a Grand Canyon. Through four and a half years he has mainly kept his footing, in a way that becomes cumulatively surprising -- and I say that even while disagreeing with many of his policies, notably including the recent security-state extensions.  Every now and then, as with this speech, we see how hard what he is doing is.

  • Barack Obama, Editor

    If the politics business hadn't worked out for Obama, the path he might have chosen

    The hoary joke in the literary world, based on Dreams From My Father, was that if things had worked out differently for Barack Obama, he could have made it as a writer. Not as a pro basketball player, which might have been his original fantasy (or pro golfer, despite recent tips from Tiger Woods); or as a game-show host or famous disc jockey, where you can imagine Bill Clinton being a big success; or as commissioner of baseball, the path-not-taken for G.W. Bush; or as a backstage legislative master, like Lyndon Johnson or even Teddy Kennedy. But in nonfiction writing, he coulda been a contender.

    He might also be vying for the ever-dwindling number of editor jobs that are available. Three years ago I posted the picture of his hand-edited version of his address to a Joint Session of Congress on health-care reform. Now we get this White House photo of his reworking of last month' inaugural address. Click for a zoomable detailed view.


    There are lots of fascinating details and insights from the edits Obama has made here, and from comparison with the final version he delivered six days after this draft. I'll leave most of them for you to find and will mention only one.

    As I noted at the time, early in the speech Obama made a very powerful allusion to Lincoln's second inaugural address:

    Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free.

    That line isn't in this draft shown in the picture --  at least not the part we can see. But Obama is working toward it with this handwritten insert at the top of the page:

     Through blood and toil ____ we learned that no nation founded on these principles could survive half-slave and half-free.

    He recognizes that "toil" is not right -- "blood and toil" would be an allusion to Churchill, not Lincoln -- but he also knows that for cadence he needs another word after "blood," where he's crossed out "toil" and left a  ___  mark.

    At some point between this draft and delivery time he or his assistants figured out that the most elegant approach would be simply to use Lincoln's phrase -- and, part of the elegance, just to use it as an allusion, an element of the national heritage Americans either should know or could know, rather than lumbering it with a heavy "in the words of our Sixteenth President" attribution. Much as our Sixteenth President himself had once used the phrase "a house divided" without having to tell his audience that he was quoting the Bible. There's much to observe in this one image. Thanks to reader KP.

    Update: I mentioned earlier that I "remembered" a line from Obama's 2004 Democratic convention speech that he hadn't actually uttered. Reader TZ, in California, gives another explanation for why I "heard" something different from what Obama said:
    As others may have pointed out, in the movie Man of the Year, Robin Williams character Tom Dobbs speaks this line:
    But the last few years we've been divided. Red states, blue states.
    There are no red and blue states, there's only the United States of America. That's what we're about.
  • Why Obama Never Said 'Not Red States or Blue States but the United States ...'

    The day when Barack Obama was furious at John Kerry

    Thumbnail image for Obama2004.jpgSeveral days ago, in my annotation* of this year's State of the Union address, I mentioned that I'd remembered Barack Obama having said the following in his debut speech [right] at the 2004 Democratic convention: "Not 'red states' or 'blue states,' but the United States of America." In fact, as I found out when I went back to the transcript, he'd said something subtly but significantly different.

    A reader in a position to know explains one reason for this aural-memory version of phantom-limb pain. The line I thought I remembered is closer to what Obama had intended to say -- until he was instructed not to, by John Kerry's team at the convention, since Kerry preferred to make that point himself. The person who wrote to me added some off-the-record confirming details, but he pointed me to this on-the-record account in an intriguing story called "The Speech," by David Bernstein in Chicago magazine, back in 2007. The relevant passage:

    During one practice session, a Kerry speechwriter interrupted to say that Obama would need to rephrase or cut one of the lines from his speech because it was too similar to a line in Kerry's acceptance remarks. The line in question was the climax to Obama's famous passage on the red-states, blue-states divide. That passage, as Obama delivered it, reads: "The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states-red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states." Axelrod says Obama had originally written the passage to end with something like, "We're not red states and blue states; we're all Americans, standing up together for the red, white, and blue." But to satisfy Kerry's speechwriters, Axelrod says, Obama grudgingly cut out the line. A transcript of Kerry's competing text reads: "Maybe some just see us divided into those red states and blue states, but I see us as one America: red, white, and blue."

    After the rehearsal ended, Obama was furious. "That fucker is trying to steal a line from my speech," he griped to Axelrod in the car on the way back to their hotel, according to another campaign aide who was there but asked to remain anonymous. Axelrod says he does not recollect exactly what Obama said to him. "He was unhappy about it, yeah," he says, but adds that Obama soon cooled down. "Ultimately, his feeling was: They had given him this great opportunity; who was he to quibble over one line?"  

    The Bernstein story is full of nuggets like this that are all the more fascinating in retrospect. Here is one that really caught my eye, since I had remarked on Obama's use of exactly this "surfing" technique at the end of this latest SOTU (see note "ci-87").

    Next, Obama had to master a technique known in professional public-speaking circles as "surfing" or "riding" the applause. [Speech consultant Michael] Sheehan explains how it works: "Because people at home don't hear when there's a big burst of applause-you hear it minimally in the background-speakers have to talk over the applause; otherwise there's long gaps of silence. People are clapping but you can't hear it at home-it's like, sentence-pause-sentence-pause-sentence-pause. It's just deadly."

    While I'm at it, Andrew Sprung writes in with a parsing of the speech that makes sense to me. He starts with my remark that Obama is famously "eloquent" but not in a way that can be reduced to quotes or phrases (emphasis added):

    1) Re that strange absence of memorable phrases: it's not just balanced by one strength, it's book-ended between two: conceptual complexity/coherence on the macro side, and cadence on the sub-micro. At least in 2007/2008, less so now, Obama's speeches were musical, hinging on repeat phrases (yes we can) and on the simplest of rhetorical devices, various forms of parallel structure, e.g. anaphora, the repetition of beginning words (also a lot of parallel phrasings in series -- "A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin" etc.).  It was no accident that Will.i.am was able to set one of his speeches to music to some effect.
    2) What are some of those endlessly repeated ideas that stitch his speeches together? A top of the head list:
    a) Prosperity is only sustainable if it's shared
    b) Democratic government is a commitment to shared prosperity
    c) At intervals, the American people demand and get new commitments to extend opportunity to excluded groups and to expand investment in shared prosperity
    d) That historical process described in c) expresses a drive to fulfill the promises embedded in the country's documents -- and those documents triggered that drive both by articulating "self evident" truths of universal appeal and by creating a government machinery to channel the popular will. The drive to fulfill those promises is the never-ending quest for a 'more perfect union.'
    e) Over time, the will of the people, expressed through democratic processes, will bend toward justice, toward provision of the rights laid out in the Declaration. That is the source of the e pluribus unum that Obama made his bones by affirming in 2004.
    f) The principles articulated in the Declaration are the political expression of universal values professed by all major religions: I am my brother's keeper, sister's keeper, etc.  Political, in that by extending those values to "all men," they challenge the polity to expand the circle of those encompassed by the moral laws of the community -- basically, to extend them to everyone  -- without the carapace of a body of specific observances or doctrinal beliefs that divide the faithful from the infidels.
     It's a highly idealized view of American history, with a Hegelian/Fukuyaman undercurrent: the will of the people, channeled and unleashed by democracy, will tend toward ever increasing prosperity and progress and freedom. Idealized but basically right, I think -- if the period of growing inequality and government dysfunction we're in turns out to be cyclical and temporary rather than a marker of decline.

    I agree entirely about the musical, and also preacherly, quality of Obama's speeches at their most "rhetorical." That's how "they deserve a vote" worked in this latest speech. Nothing memorable about those words, but he used them as if in a song or poem.

    UPDATE: Another reader complicates the story thus:
    I think the "misremembering" of the red&blue states quote, comes exactly from obama reusing and refining the the same ideas.

    he actually used the quote you remembered in a later speech. his 2008 victory-speech:

    "Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America."
    * These annotated speeches are my version of an Advent Calendar, with lots of little windows to open -- or like the "Easter egg" feature in some software. I figure that someone has to notice the countless decisions, the grace notes, and the compromises that go into a performance like this speech.
  • Separated at Birth

    Are you now, or have you ever been, on the North Korean payroll?

    Ted Cruz, the new senator from Texas, is worth keeping an eye on.

    You will see why if you take a look at the clip below, from yesterday's Senate Armed Services Committee vote on Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense. Scroll past the one-hour mark (though just before that you can hear an interesting presentation by Joe Manchin of West Virginia) and start listening to Cruz at time 01:02:00 for about two minutes. 

    If you want, you can check the contemptuous response of the committee's chairman, Carl Levin, to Cruz's line of questioning, starting at about time 01:13:30. Or that of Bill Nelson, about three minutes later.

    Now, please listen to the first minute or so of the clip below. This is a loaded comparison, but I have a reason for making it.

    Ted Cruz can't help it that his voice, his intonation, his posture at the microphone, and his overall style of speaking are so strongly reminiscent of Joe McCarthy's, who died long before Cruz was born. 

    He can help it that his insinuations, without any evidence, that Chuck Hagel could be taking money -- from North Korea (!), from Saudi Arabia or Iran -- so clearly follow the McCarthyite model. (Recall that Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, Robert Gates, Zbigniew Brzezinski, George Schultz, Madeleine Albright, Anthony Zinni, John Warner, Sam Nunn, etc., have considered Hagel "loyal" enough by their standards.) This is a man to watch.
  • Annotated SOTU Coming (but Not Right This Second)

    "The State of the Union is ... "

    Last night I watched, discussed, and took real-time notes on the State of the Union address at The Atlantic's viewing fest in New York. As soon as I can finish working through the approx 7000 words in the speech transcript, ideally on the train back to Washington starting soon [and the rest of the day], and as soon as our web team can get the whole thing formatted so as to display annotations, glosses, and general play-by-play with each relevant passage, I'll post the Official Annotated State of the Union, 2013 Edition, in this space. For samples of what I mean about the annotation and the formatting, you can check out last year's version, or the one before that, or the one before that (just after Scott Brown's election ended the several-month stretch in which the Democrats held a 60-vote filibuster-breaking majority in the Senate), or this one from back in G.W. Bush's second term.

    Last night's speech was very long, as you may have noticed, and like Obama's second inaugural address contained some surprises of policy -- plus rhetorical surprises of both the good and bad variety. For more, watch this space, I hope some time later today probably tomorrow.

  • The Two Most Powerful Allusions in Obama's Speech Today

    Blood drawn by the lash and drawn by the sword

    On reading it through after hearing it, this is another carefully crafted speech. More so, I would say, than Obama's first inaugural address. But these two parts got my attention the instant I heard them:

    1) Lash and sword. This inaugural address, like nearly all previous ones, began with an emphasis on the importance of democratic transfer-of-power. For instance, the first words of JFK's address in 1961 were, "We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom." But Obama introduced the familiar theme with this twist:

    Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of [our founding] words with the realities of our time.  [Note: this preceding sentence is the one-sentence summary of the speech as a whole.] For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they've never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob.  They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed. 
    And for more than two hundred years, we have. 
    Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free.  We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.

    Lincoln-2ndinaug-3000.jpgI like the precise logical concision of contrasting "self-evident" with "self-executing" truths. But "blood drawn by the lash" is an impressive and confident touch. It was of course an allusion to a closing passage in what is generally considered history's only great second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln's in 1865 (right):

    Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

    Half-slave, half-free was an allusion to another of Lincoln's most famous addresses, his "House Divided" speech from his campaign for the Senate in 1858. (And Lincoln's phrase "house divided" was his own allusion to the Book of Mark.) 
    2) Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. I thought the allusion in this passage was eloquent on many levels:

    We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

    The rhetorical and argumentative purpose of the speech as a whole was to connect what Obama considers the right next steps for America -- doing more things "together," making sure that everyone has an equal chance, tying each generation's interests to its predecessors' and its successors' -- with the precepts and ideals of the founders, rather than having them be seen as excesses of the modern welfare state. 

    As in the one-sentence summary at the start of the speech, Obama wants to claim not just Lincoln but also Jefferson, Madison, Adams, George Washington, and the rest as guiding spirits for his kind of progressivism. In this passage he works toward that end by numbering among "our forebears" -- those honored ancestors who fought to perfect our concepts of liberty and of union -- the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King and other veterans of Selma including still-living Rep. John Lewis, and the protestors 44 years ago at the Stonewall.

    I call the passage above an allusion rather than a dog-whistle because a dog-whistle is meant not to be recognized or understood by anyone other than its intended audience. Obama certainly knew that parts of his audience would respond more immediately and passionately to the names Seneca Falls, Selma, and [especially] Stonewall than other parts, but his meaning is accessible to anyone. As is his reference, while speaking barely a two miles from the Lincoln Memorial, to what "a King" said on "this great Mall."

    I have no illusion, delusion, allusion, or even dog-whistle conception that this speech will change the partisan power-balance affecting passage of anything Obama mentioned, from climate legislation to reforming immigration law. But as politics it was a departure for him, and as rhetorical craftsmanship once again it deserves careful study.
  • Obama's Startling Second Inaugural

    I was expecting a little tone-poem. I was wrong.

    This was the most sustainedly "progressive" statement Barack Obama has made in his decade on the national stage.

    I was expecting an anodyne tone-poem about healing national wounds, surmounting partisanship, and so on. As has often been the case, Obama confounded expectations -- mine, at least. Four years ago, when people were expecting a barn-burner, the newly inaugurated president Obama gave a deliberately downbeat, sober-toned presentation about the long challenges ahead. Now -- well, it's almost as if he has won re-election and knows he will never have to run again and hears the clock ticking on his last chance to use the power of the presidency on the causes he cares about. If anyone were wondering whether Obama wanted to lower expectations for his second term ... no, he apparently does not.

    Of course Obama established the second half of the speech, about voting rights and climate change and "not a nation of takers" and "Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall" [!] etc, with careful allusions through the first half of the speech to to our founding faiths -- and why doing things "together," the dominant word of the speech, has always been the American way. 

    More detailed parsing later, but this speech made news and alters politics in a way I had not anticipated.
  • Obama on Inouye: Another Interesting Speech

    One Hawaiian about another

    I mentioned earlier this week that Senator Daniel Inouye, who died at age 88, was as fine an exemplar of public virtues -- courage, dignity, public-spiritedness -- as modern America has offered. 

    Since then I have heard from many people who worked with or around him in the Senate about the under-publicized ways in which he tried to keep that institution running and to help it rise above partisan small-mindedness. Interestingly, most people who have sent those stories said that Inouye would not have wanted them to be known.

    But it is worth reading Barack Obama's lengthy eulogy for Inouye today at the National Cathedral. I see that Emily Yoffe, of Slate, hated the speech, finding it too self-centered on Obama's part. I disagree. I, too, have heard eulogies that were much more about the speaker than the one being mourned. I thought that in the first half of the speech, Obama was telling a story about himself in order to make a point about Inouye; and in the second half he fully developed the case for Inouye's virtues. (White House photo.) 


    If you read it or see a clip you can judge for yourself. 

    Bonus topic: Imagine yourself a president, of either party, and think how many performances you are called upon to give in a very short period of time. For Obama in less than a week, we have expected him to strike the right tone of national sorrow-and-resolve about Newtown; and to show the right mixture of firmness-and-flexibility in dealmaking about the budget; and to mourn a grandee of the Senate (knowing that Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, etc., would also be speaking); and to send signals to the Syrians and the Egyptians and the Chinese and many others; and to introduce the next secretary of state. No wonder these people look a generation older at the end of each term.
  • Today's Ignoramus-Nation Moment: 'Best Revenge'

    The unbelievable cynicism and know-nothingness of the 'vote for revenge' attack ads

    LivingWell2.pngIn the final two days of the campaign, the Romney-Ryan ticket and its supporters are all over President Obama for talking about "revenge." On Friday, when trying to shush supporters who were booing the mention of Mitt Romney's name, Obama said they shouldn't boo -- they should vote. Because, as he said in an ad-libbed line, "voting is the best revenge."

    In the eyes of the right, that line is the offense -- and apparently they're not kidding. Fox News was immediately on it as the latest election-changing gaffe and outrage. And here's a sample from a Romney stump speech yesterday that then was included in an ad:

    Yesterday, the president .. told his supporters, voting for revenge. Vote for revenge? Let me tell you what I'd like to tell you: Vote for love of country!"

    The Fox Nation headline was "Obama: Vote for 'Revenge,' Romney: Vote for Love of Country.' "

    Thumbnail image for FoxRevenge.png
    No doubt the Romney campaign felt that it had caught Obama in an on-the-record version of the "clinging to guns and religion" line four years ago. Finally we get a real look at the guy, and what we see is someone who, like his mentor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, (a) doesn't love his country, and (b) is showing traits of that unsettling "angry black man-ism" that he usually manages to conceal so shrewdly behind his cool manner and big smile.

    Of course, what we're actually seeing is the entirely different option (c): That Obama is so familiar with bookclub-level literary allusions (in this case the aphorism "living well is the best revenge"), rather than anything super highbrow, that he (c1) recognizes them as cliches or formulas that can be adapted, and (c2) assumes that at least some other people will also recognize them as such.

    Illustration of point (c1) concerning language so familiar it can be adapted: In the first season of Homeland, the Brody family is taking a drive from the D.C. area to Gettysburg. They've just been discussing "Four-score and seven years ago..." One of the kids asks how far they still have to drive. The mother says, "Three-score miles." In the circumstances of that car, this also illustrates (c2).
    When it comes to Obama's off-hand remark, I have exactly zero doubt that he thought he was applying a widely familiar term. That is what anyone of his age, background, and education would have had in mind. Let me put it this way: Last night, in an NPR interview with Guy Raz, Taylor Swift, who is all of 22, was discussing poems by Pablo Neruda. Is it so surprising that a sitting president, who is nearly three decades older than Swift and, unlike her, a college and law-school grad and author of a memoir packed with literary allusions, would have heard the very familiar saying "living well is the best revenge"? And would know that it doesn't mean anything like what Romney claimed. [Update: a number of people have written in saying, "Ok, what does it mean?" That's why I have the links below to Calvin Tomkins's article and other references. Look it up! Or listen to R.E.M. Short answer: it is about the opposite of "revenge" in the normal sense.] [And another update: This post's title is obviously exaggerated for effect, and I am not saying that anyone unfamiliar with "living well..." is an ignoramus. I am saying that the Romney campaign certainly knows what Obama was saying, and why -- and the ad suggesting otherwise is pandering to know-nothingism.]

    Bonus question: is it possible that Mitt Romney himself -- who went to Stanford and then BYU, who lived in France, who went to Harvard Business School and like Obama to Harvard Law, who has lived for decades in Boston and considers himself well-read and has some literarily accomplished advisors -- has never heard of this saying? Is it conceivable that he actually believes Obama was talking about revenge-voting as if it were basically like "revenge sex"?

    Just to show that familiarity with the phrase is not confined to people interested in F. Scott Fitzgerald; or Gerald and Sara Murphy, the arty American exiles in France who were supposedly the model for Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night and were the subjects of Calvin Tompkins's very popular book Living Well Is the Best Revenge and New Yorker article; nor even George Herbert, the English poet who 400-plus years ago coined the term "living well is the best revenge," I give you R.E.M.:




    Bonus-bonus question: Why are reporters outside the Fox News ecosystem reporting this "controversy" at face value? E.g., from ABC News:

    I am going to town on this because it's the end of the election cycle, and I don't know whether to laugh or cry* about this latest glimpse into our public culture. Maybe I will escape these next two days by watching football. Or opening Tender is the Night for the first time since college.
    * Not really! This is a cliche that I am using on purpose. In real life I am sitting here drinking some coffee.

    And one more update! Fox goes all in, saying that Obama "coined a new campaign catchphrase":

  • More on 12-Dimensional Chess and the Discombobulation of Mitt Romney

    Has a commander-in-chief learned how to get under a CEO's skin?

    Following an earlier reader assessment of the subtle ways in which Barack Obama may have been trying to rile Mitt Romney -- apart from the quite obvious jibes and challenges he applied in the second debate -- another reader adds this observation:

    Obama also did one other thing - constantly interjected comments like "that's not true" - or "you're wrong Governor" while Romney was speaking.  My experience in corporate life showed me very few CEOs or execs that would tolerate those types of disrespectful interjections while they are talking.   Romney becomes exasperated quite easily - and then he goes to adrenaline pumping "attacky" Romney --- "I'll give you some advice."  --- or following up on the text of the Rose Garden speech - even when Obama said "proceed Governor" - a sure sign that this was a trap.   

    Two things happen when the Governor's adrenaline pumps - first Romney becomes nonstrategic and unfocused.  Second - he has to have the last word (Crowley saying Governor, please take your seat).   I believe subconsciously, women voters are not impressed with a man that "has to have the last word."  I'm expecting a lot more of this tactic.

    This rings true -- about what Obama was doing, and how Romney reacted. In a few hours we'll have a better idea of whether it was a concerted strategy on Obama's part, and whether Romney has thought about the ways he should respond.

  • Your 12-Dimensional-Chess Strategy Memo for the Debates

    'If you throw a knife, he'll respond with a knife.' A hidden mind-game in the debate?

    There is plenty of guidance on our site, and elsewhere, about what subjects should come up for discussion at tonight's final debate. Please read!

    But if, after you've tanked up on substance, you find yourself still hankering for a little gamesmanship / slugfest-strategy analysis, it's worth considering the note below, from a reader in California. It's possible that the reader is over-thinking this, and that he's imagined an approach more complex than what the Obama side really had thought through. But maybe not, and it provides one more angle to watch for this evening. Emphasis added:

    I was re-reading the transcript and re-watching the second debate. I think much has been made of the weariness of Obama in the first debate, the tired body language. However, in the analysis of the debates, people have somewhat missed the most striking development.

    The Obama staff figured out, in the second debate, both Mitt Romney's largest technical weakness, and how it fits into a loophole in the debate format. Obama back-loaded substance in almost every question asked in debate #2. That is to say, he would routinely make light, bland, mostly conventional talking points, and save the actual confrontation of substance for the rebuttal or follow-up sequence. This forced Romney to bicker and interrupt constantly, and it remains true from the first question on. On women's rights, Obama starts middle of the road, and then in the rebuttal, hits him on contraception. On Libya, he opens with boilerplate, Romney comes back, and then Obama hits him with the coffins and offense. Finally, the strategies in their last answers. Obama saved the 47 percent for when he knew Romney could not respond, which is already widely acknowledged. What is less acknowledged is this strategy was employed through the entirety of the debate.

    It's a key flaw in how Romney operates. If you throw a boilerplate answer out, he will feel safe and respond with boilerplate. If you throw a knife, he will want to respond with a knife. If you time this correctly, however, and open with boilerplate with the intention to follow up with a knife, he isn't prepared. He is a reactive debater (ie. Kennedy on guns, Romney was prepared for it and took him to task). They key the Obama staff has figured out is that they have to open by giving him nothing that merits a reaction, because he is much weaker in the follow-up back & forth round, and his personal body language and tics come out significantly more.

    I believe now that they see the opening, they will follow it in debate 3. Example: Libya. The President opens the same way, saying he'll take responsibility. Romney opens with his lines, probably trying to retroactively correct Crowley. Then, and only then, does Obama hit him with Issa's document dump putting people in jeopardy, the Republican party's adamant politicization of everything, maybe even the Allen memo to his employees. Essentially, using two minutes of rebuttal space to hit Romney not just with the substance, but with the broader theme of a party that holds nothing sacred. And they will throw this into the moderator's discussion time, which Romney still does not understand is not the same format as the opening gambits or, at the least, is still not as comfortable in.

    The Romney team, I assume, has seen this issue and is trying to correct it. But it's a bit harder, because I think it's an innate thing, like Romney stuttering over his n's. He believes the the debate works like Person A speaks, Person B speaks, Person A speaks, Person B Speakers. The Obama team has figured out however, that the format works Person A speaks, Person B Speaks, Person A & Person B speak, and by back-loading the substance, forced Romney into a listening position for much of the second half of the confrontation.

    Again, by the time of the third debate, the stagecraft and performance surprises are largely behind us, and the answers on substance matter all the more. But stagecraft, strategy, and presentation still make a difference, and this note offers one more thing to think about tonight and talk about tomorrow. (Then, starting at 10:30pm EDT, I'll skip the-post debate chatter and switch channels to watch the Giants win.)

  • The Last Debate: What the Candidates Should Be Asked

    A wish-list for Bob Schieffer

    In rounds One and Two of the presidential debates, more attention was on how Mitt Romney and Barack Obama presented themselves than on the specific policy points they were trying to make. You might say that a focus on atmospherics and performance is shallow-minded or willed by a politically obsessed press. I'd reply that for better or worse it is the way these encounters have always worked. Anything we don't already know about a tax plan or foreign-policy decision we're unlikely to learn during a debate. What we do have in these encounters is a chance to see how two candidates deal with each other, and with real-time pressure, and with sometimes unexpected questions or challenges.

    Often third debates are less revealing on these personal-dynamics fronts, because each candidates has become familiar with the opponent's moves and the format as a whole. Sometimes actual points of policy force their way into our consciousness! Toward that end, a friend with a long career as a scholar of and participant in national politics sends this wish-list for the themes the candidates should be made to discuss. He writes:

     I wish you or your colleagues would convince Bob Schieffer to add defense topics to his announced list for the Monday debate.

    Here's the list of broad topics issued by Schieffer:
    • America's role in the world
    • Our longest war -- Afghanistan and Pakistan
    • Red lines -- Israel and Iran
    • The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism -- I
    • The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism -- II
    • The rise of China and tomorrow's world
    What's missing? Big stuff.
    No questions on the Pentagon or defense spending -- a clear point of difference between the candidates.
    No questions on the criteria for the use of force, whether in Iran or Syria or ... Mexico.
    No questions on the war powers of the President, either regarding Iran or drones or targeted killings.
    No questions on civil-military relations.

    Maybe Schieffer will shoehorn some of these issues into his announced topics, or maybe the candidates will broaden their answers. I hope so. Otherwise, this will be a truncated and woefully inadequate one.

    In a similar vein, William Astore, a retired Air Force officer who now teaches history, explains what he wishes the candidates would address:

    Here's something I'd like to see this campaign season: our two major party candidates debating our wars rather than ignoring them. Both President Obama and Governor Romney prefer to praise the troops rather than to address the tragic consequences of continuing military action in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The latter, when they're addressed at all, are reduced to sound bites and homilies about the need to "stay the course" and "support our troops."

    Praising our military while ignoring the wars we send them to is perhaps the biggest shame of American political discourse today (and that is indeed saying a lot). 

    I'm not sure this is the biggest shame -- the absence of climate change from this "choosing our future" discussion is certainly a contender. But the problem Astore writes about is real. Dear Bob Schieffer: I know you'll prepare seriously for this discussion. But give a look to these suggestions as you do so.


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