John P. Wheeler as 'Outer Planet'


Several readers have written to ask -- some genially, some less so -- why I sounded so peeved about the Fox News headline on news of Jack Wheeler's death. "Cops: Former Bush Aide Killed, Found in Landfill."

No doubt part of it is general frayedness on my side, but the rational part of me was -- and is -- objecting to the oversimplification and (I think) revealing political reductionism of this presentation. As I mentioned yesterday, Wheeler had in fact worked as a second-tier appointee during the GW Bush administration-- a Special Assistant, for logistics, to the Secretary of the Air Force. But this amounted to being a "Bush Aide" about as much as his service as a SEC junior lawyer during the Carter Administration made him a "Carter Aide."* To me the test would have been: if you'd gathered 100 people who knew Wheeler and asked each of them to write 100 descriptions of him, I bet that exactly zero of the results would have been "Bush Aide." But this was the lens through which one major organization immediately and instinctively saw this news item; that's what I found noteworthy.

Mark Thompson, at Time's Swampland site, did a far better job of coming up with a two-word epithet, when he presented Wheeler as an "outer planet" in the Washington solar system. His portrayal of Wheeler today is unromanticized but realistic, in suggesting the passions, oddities, and principles of the man. I am sorry for and still puzzled by Jack Wheeler's death but welcome accounts like this of his varied parts.
* Yes, I realize that Special Assistants are usually Schedule C "political" appointments and staff attorneys are not, but no one has previously imagined that a special assistant to a service secretary is a "presidential aide."

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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.
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