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: Speeches

  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.

  • The North Country

    The view from an abbey window.

    Thumbnail image for StJohns.jpg

    This is what April 17 looks like in central Minnesota. It is a view out the window of the guest house of St. John's Abbey, in Collegeville, a large Benedictine monastery. In summertime you would see a nice blue pond in the middle distance; now it's still frozen.

    If you happen to be in the vicinity, I will be at an event tonight with Gary Eichten, long-time Minnesota Public Radio host and editor, at the College of St. Benedict / St. John's University. The program begins at 8 pm. That, as I understand it, is the standard schedule for night events at CSBSJU, allowing the monks time to finish their evening prayers.
  • 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.

    8475945531_5e744c2600_k.jpg

    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.
  • 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.) 

    ObamaInouye2.jpg

    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.
  • On Obama's 'Disappointing' DNC Speech

    It may have been better than it sounded.

    I said last night that Barack Obama's acceptance speech, while not as flashy as some others in his past and several others at the convention, "did the job" he needed it to do. It was solid, serious, and under- rather than over-emotional -- traits shared by his strikingly low-key inaugural address  -- and in that sense was a better bet for the president than going all-out to repeat his "Yes we can!" performance of four years ago.

    - If he had been much more flowery, at a time of discouraging economic realities, he would be teed up for criticisms that "he's out of touch," or "he's all talk," or "great at speeches, bad at results." Those would have been at least as burdensome as the "too downbeat" criticism he is getting instead.

    - Instead he was sober, meat-and-potatoes, going into as much detail as a convention speech (vs. a State of the Union) allows. Anyone complaining that there was "not enough substance" in his talk needs to go look at some past nominees' convention speeches. It is possible to go too light on the details, as Mitt Romney must now regret doing in his failure to talk about Afghanistan. But Obama served up about as much policy as normal convention speeches will bear.

    - It's important to stress that it doesn't matter if Obama "fell short" of the emotional level of his wife's speech, or the crowd-command of Bill Clinton's. The rank-the-speakers derby had an entirely different edge for the Democrats than for the Republicans. Bill Clinton is no doubt savoring every story saying that his speech was the highlight of the convention. But for Obama, all that matters is that Clinton is now doing his best to pull the nominee across the line. (Think how history would be different if Al Gore had asked Clinton to do this 12 years ago.) At the RNC, by contrast, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio were "helping" Romney --  sort of. To spell it out: they're better off if he loses this year.

    - In retrospect, the most dramatic tonal moment of the speech may have been this brief passage near the end. Obama was indirectly addressing the difference between the Hope-and-Change aura of 2008, and the Doing-Our-Best-and-Hoping-for-Better realities now. But with the final three words, he made several points at once:

    I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention.  The times have changed, and so have I.  I'm no longer just a candidate.  I'm the President.

    To me, that final sentence came across not as boasting or preening. Instead it had a startling spare, understated drama. Obama used it as the transition to a line about the burden of wartime leadership. ("That means I know what it means to send young Americans into battle, for I have held in my arms the mothers and fathers of those who didn't return.") But I heard it as also conveying, Let's get serious here. I'm the President, so I know how hard these trade-offs are. I'm the President, so there are some things I won't joke about. But also: for all of you who think I'm a Muslim, an alien, a socialist, a fraud, here's a reminder. I'm the President.

    - Also in retrospect, the most important "content" part of Bill Clinton's speech may have been his argument that things were about to get better, economically. In case you've forgotten:

    [Obama] has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity. And if you will renew the president's contract, you will feel it. You will feel it.

    (Cheers, applause.)

    Folks, whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election. I just want you to know that I believe it. With all my heart, I believe it.

    (Cheers, applause.)

    Now, why do I believe it?

    I'm fixing to tell you why...

    Now, two messages from readers who object to the media's pooh-poohing of Obama's speech. First, from a male reader in the South:

    I liked the speech. I especially liked its personal humility and the references to "citizenship." Don't know if he used the word "honor," but it's a similar kind of word. It's the kind of word your fantasy of a 50s dad would use. He fit himself right into the role of a more professorial version of Biden's dad. "I'm going away for a while, Joey, there's jobs there. But, remember things will be all right." It was the optimism of sacrifice. In our mythology, a dad conveys that, even though mother more often live it today.

    He was playing Bambi's dad. Tom Hanks.

    The entire convention was about asserting the "traditional values" of an untraditional American political coalition of tribes that has not before wielded real power. Nothing is more symbolically key to those traditional values than a wise, disciplined father.

    For as long as I've been following politics, dems/liberals/etc. have been -- pardon the crudity -- the pussies. The people asking the power to be nice to them and complaining when it's not. Or maybe the kids. The powerful, world-weary father is the ultimate antidote to both of those perceptions. Dems have been fond of referring to themselves as the adults for a long-time. I think they're finally really projecting it.

    I think that's what Obama was after. Obviously, we'll see if it works.

    And, from a female reader in California:

    First, the speech reminded us he is the adult in the room.   The MSNBC moderators wondered why people cheered when he said "I am the President."  It resonated deeply to my husband and me.  He is the MAN.  And we were touched when he asked for our vote.  You can't close the sale unless you ask for the money.

    It was a measured speech, spoken with gravity and humility, with the strength to tell the hard truths about the Republican nominees (the foreign policy takedowns in particular).  The new theme of citizenship was invigorating.  It's not just that it echoed the false notes of Citizens United, but it UNITED people around a concept that again was neither red state nor blue state, to paraphrase his 2008 speech and swept up in its embrace the DREAMERS.   

    I marveled at the craftsmanship in which he emphasized again and again, without shouting it out, I am an American, I love America, I am a man of faith (it took Rev. Al and Melissa Harris-Perry to enlighten me on the biblical quotes and themes...but I was raised Buddhist).  The way he re-framed the Hope and Change argument, reminding us that the path is long but it leads to a better place, my gosh, that made everyone want to dust off their Hope posters (take that Paul Ryan) or tack up a new one.

    I think he also did a very good job reminding us that progress and change are personal.  Our family is personally better off than Election Day 2008.  Our  25 year old son got to join my husband's health plan. Same son got a good paying job this summer with the company of his dreams. My husband's company (Japanese auto) has been able to hand out pay raises and bonuses for the first time in years.  I can get a wellness check for free.  The value of our 401Ks, which had been decimated by 30%+ in 2008, have rebounded and grown, the value of our home is again rising.  My daughter (a college junior) will someday benefit from the Lily Ledbetter Act and no co-pays for contraceptives.  The war is over in Iraq and I can't remember the last time a friend in the Reserve has been called up. Gay friends can marry...

    Pundits tend to be obsessed with the aggregate numbers of unemployment and rising gas prices.  But they forget that the gut-wrenching fear of losing everything and the feeling of powerlessness in the face of rising prices (not just gas but CPI in general) are gone.  We remember when prices were high under George Bush, but now there are more hybrid cars available, as well as improved public transit and bike paths and new towns that can be walked not driven.  There is a growing internet economy that helps many with cheaper prices and opportunities to earn money outside the old-line corporate/small business/farm model.  Have you been to a swap meet lately?  Positive change has happened these past 4 years and it can't be denied...

    Taken as a whole, the DNC speakers walked all of us up to President Obama's speech.  The passion, fire, focus, MATH (as Jon Stewart marveled), were brought forth by the First Lady, Pres. Clinton (listen!) and Vice President Biden.  My Facebook friends said they saw the speech and donated. I will too.  That speech got me fired up and ready to go.

    Update: See The Atlantic's Garance Franke-Ruta to similar effect just after the speech.

  • Three Quick Points on Obama's Speech

    A speech that does the job

    Will try to write a "real" assessment at some point. For now:

    1) Citizen Obama. The most interesting "new"-ish approach in the speech was the theme that ran through the final one-third of it, about the importance and implications of "citizenship." Viz:

    As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights - rights that no man or government can take away. We insist on personal responsibility and we celebrate individual initiative. We're not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system - the greatest engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known. [That is: we are for individuals, and for success. And now the pivot:]

    But we also believe in something called citizenship - a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations. [And on to explain the ramifications.]

    The reason this is interesting: It is a way to deal with the GOP's out-of-context "you didn't build that"  meme not by (1) matching its out-of-context-ness, with an offsetting "like to fire people" theme (as some DNC speakers did); nor (2) directly making the case for the value of public/private interactions, as Bill Clinton effectively did last night, but (3) attempting to change the terrain, or the game, with a new definition of terms. More later on the implications, but a very interesting re-casting of the debate.

    2) Mockery rather than anger. Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" line was so damaging against Jimmy Carter because it was amused-and-dismissive sounding, rather than angry at all. Obama managed to strike a similar "there you go again" amused/dismissive tone in talking about Romney's London-Olympic missteps and his team being "... new [after a pause, and with a grin] to foreign policy."

    3) How "false equivalence" works. My mailbox is swamped with messages from Republicans asking when "the media" will get on Joe Biden's speech tonight with the same list of factual errors they/we produced after Paul Ryan's "post-truth" convention speech last week. Also, when Biden will be attacked the way Ryan has been about his marathon claims.

    The answer to the second question is: Biden had his version of this problem back in the 1980s, when he got in trouble for appropriating anecdotes from a Neil Kinnock speech as if he'd experienced them himself. But people at the time didn't think that they had to find equal criticisms of, say, George H.W. Bush or Dick Gephardt; Biden attracted the criticism because he had created the problem.

    The answer to the first question is: If someone comes up with illustrations of Biden mis-stating facts as grossly as Ryan did in his speech, then he will deserve and get comparable grief for them. But the expectation in most of these notes, interestingly, is that it shouldn't matter whether there is any objective difference in who is bending the truth at any given time. If you point out problems "on one side," then you'd better find some equal and offsetting problem on the other, or else the game is rigged. Whether or not the problem is there.

    3A) On the speech overall: I thought it was not one of his best but that it did the job. "The job," in this sense, was having the party leave the convention feeling as if they had a case to present. I don't buy the argument that some of the home-run speeches of the convention -- by Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Deval Patrick, Julian Castro, Andrew Tobias, and others including in their particular ways John Kerry and Joe Biden -- "raised the bar" for Obama or "set him up for disappointment." At the Republican convention last week, speakers like Chris Christie and Marco Rubio were outright auditioning to be the candidate in 2016. That ambition depends on Romney's failure this year. Everyone at the DNC was pulling to get Obama and Biden across the line this year; each speech built on the others rather than competing with them for attention.

    And, OK, 4): Nice to hear a plain statement that climate change "is not a hoax." That is it for now.

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author