James Fallows

James Fallows
James Fallows is a staff writer 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. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the 2018 book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which was a national best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary. More +
  • ‘Doing All, With Nothing’: The Coast Guard During the Shutdown

    Coast Guard crew rescuing civilians from Rocky Point, North Carolina, during Hurricane Florence in September, 2018. Because of the government shutdown, now in its fifth week, Coast Guard officers, enlisted personnel, and other staffers are working without paychecks. Coast Guard photo via Reuters

    The U.S. Coast Guard is one of the five branches of the U.S. military—with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps—but since 2003 it has been organizationally part of the Department of Homeland Security.

    The DHS budget is one of several being frozen or sequestered by the current government shutdown, which is now in its fifth week and the longest in history. Members of the Coast Guard are among the hundreds of thousands of federal workers not receiving pay.

    A reader who is part of a Coast Guard family writes:

    These are the men and women who are actually engaged in providing security to our country. These folks are literally first responders who create a virtual wall that we take for granted. Whatever we might think about airport security theater, there is no doubt about the amazing work done by the Coast Guard.

    Now I've got a kid about to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy, plus I have been following the extraordinary efforts by communities, restaurants, churches, banks, insurance companies... and the Coast Guard itself, in an effort to support so many enlisted folks who are in serious trouble right now. My kid and her friends are fine but what's happening with many enlisted folks is simply horrible.

    With that intro in mind, here's what I think is the core issue at hand: this shutdown is a Chickenhawk Shutdown. Like the Chickenhawk Nation, most people have no clue.

    Congresspeople get paid. Retirees get paid. Active duty military get paid. IRS refund checks get processed (by people who expect to eventually get paid), and lots and lots of other services continue to be provided.

  • The Confrontation on the Mall

    Nathan Phillips, seen at a 2017 protest. Terray Sylvester / Reuters

    I am familiar with the ambiguities of video evidence—for example, through this piece I wrote from Israel more than 15 years ago, “Who Shot Mohammed al-Dura,” about the battle over the meaning of an inflammatory video there;  or these two separate Twitter threads, first here then here, in the past few days from James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor for America magazine, about the meanings of the multiple videos from the confrontation on the National Mall this past weekend.

    I now believe that the “meaning” or “truth” of this recent encounter is likely to remain as contested as anything in the al-Dura case. The more additional evidence comes in, the more clearly it is taken to “prove” one interpretation of the case, or its opposite. “You must not have seen the full videos” is meant to be a conclusory statement, either way.

    The more I have looked at the evidence—the many, many videos, and the many statements, and the many timeline-analyses, and the many interpretations—the more I have recognized what I believe to be its reality, and the more I have understood that many others won’t see it the same way. Thus I regret weighing in on the case at all—or saying anything more than what I originally intended, which was admiration for a statement by the mayor of Covington, Kentucky, reaffirming his community’s belief in openness and inclusivity. Saying more was a mistake, which I would undo if I could.

    The heart of this mistake was forgetting the difference between what I think or believe or conclude, on the one hand, and what will be provable to others. Here is a set of points about that frontier, which I’m numbering so I can refer back and forth to them:

    1) The young man who was most prominently displayed in the video from the confrontation has released a statement about his intentions, saying that they were entirely peaceable and respectful. All he meant to do by standing in front of tribal elder with a drum, Nathan Phillips, for several minutes was to prevent further confrontations.

    You can read the statement here.

    The statement describes many background aspects of the event, from this student’s perspective. As a factual point, it doesn’t mention that a large number of the young men present, including the one issuing the statement, had chosen to wear MAGA hats.

    2) As a complementary analysis of what the overlapping videos of the event show, this extensive Twitter thread by Lisa Sharon Harper matches what I believe the videos show. Similarly with this long thread from TBQ. As with the al-Dura case, there are long, detailed chronologies “proving” completely opposite interpretations of events. My point is that the two chronicles I’m mentioning seemed consistent with what I thought the videos showed. Update: Josh Marshall of TPM has also posted a careful, dispassionate, and in my view convincing analysis of the videos.

    3) The mail that has come in has been voluminous, and in three distinct categories.

    Much is outraged, personally abusive, and profane. I won’t give examples.

    Some is impassioned and angry, but inclines toward offering a denunciation of the “rush to judgment” by media members, including me, in this case. I’ll give samples of them below.

    The rest is in the vein of this following message, usually from Americans and others who mention that they are non-white. This one comes from a well-known American academic, of the Baby Boomer era. He writes:

    Nathan Phillips deserves both respect and emulation. He stepped in to prevent violence. [According to Phillips’s interviews, he was trying to avoid conflict between the students and a taunting group known as the Black Hebrews.] And he kept his cool in difficult circumstances.   

    Nathan Phillips had seen that smug smirk before, he knew what it stood for, and he acted with courage, dignity and self-control.

    We have all seen that smug smirk.  It is often a prelude to worse.

    • I saw the smirk while weighing in for a high school wrestling match. It was followed by trash talk with racial invective.
    • I saw the smirk while sitting in a McDonalds in Indiana. It was followed by a slow-walk staredown with filthy racist remarks.  
    • I saw the smirk in a diner in Tennessee. It was followed by a man emptying a salt shaker on my eggs, flipping the food in my face, and following me as I headed toward the parking lot.
    • I saw the smirk on the face of a drunk off duty police officer in a bar in my home town. It was followed by chest bumping and a threat to beat me if I did not go back where I came from.

    In these instances, nothing too bad happened because others acted.   

  • The Mayor of Covington, Kentucky, Explains What His City Stands For

    Nathan Phillips (right), Vietnam veteran and Omaha Nation elder, being mocked and confronted by scores of students who had come to Washington for the "March for Life." The students, nearly all white, were reportedly from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky. Reuters

    [Please see Updates at the end of this post. And please see also this extensive followup post, in which I say that it was a mistake to have weighed in on any topic other than the statement from the Mayor of Covington. I regret having done so. In the days since this event occurred, the ramifying videos have been taken as “proving,” with absolute certainty, completely opposite interpretations of events. I am sorry to have said anything beyond support for the mayor’s statement.]

    I don’t know who the young man in the MAGA hat in this photo is. I don’t care to know.

    His name, which the internet will inevitably turn up, really doesn’t matter. It matters to his parents, of course—and to his teachers. I hope they will be reflective, and expect they will be ashamed: of a smirking young man and the scores of other (nearly all white) students from a Catholic school in Kentucky. Today, on the National Mall in Washington, they apparently mocked, harassed, and menaced a Native American man who had [reportedly] fought for the United States in Vietnam and who today represented both the U.S. and his Omaha nation with poise, courage, and dignity. [It later emerged that he had been in the USMC during the Vietnam era but did not fight in Vietnam.]

    That man’s name matters. It is Nathan Phillips.

    The crowd members’ names don’t matter, any more than the names of the crowd you see in photo like the ones from Arkansas in the 1950s you see here. These young men will be immortalized, as other angry young white people were: as a group, beyond their identities as individuals.

    If one of the priests or teachers with the group today had stepped in to stop them—if even one of the students had said, “Come on, back off!”—that person would be remembered, too. But there is no sign that anyone, student or teacher or parent or priest, did.

    Teenagers do stupid things, especially teenaged boys. I was once a teenaged boy, and my wife and I raised two sons.

    But stupidity doesn’t have to mean hatred and bigotry.  Someone taught young people—in the 1950s, today—to behave the way they did.

    Parents, priests, teachers, neighbors—someone taught them.

  • ‘God Is Not Done With Us Yet’: The Move Toward Local Renewal

    The famous "rising sun" chair from the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which led to Benjamin Franklin's famous question about whether it depicted a setting sun, or a rising sun. National Park Service

    The prospect for governance at the national level is dark. If you were in doubt, here is some recent grist.

    This makes it all the more important to notice, to connect, and to learn from the dispersed examples of local-level renewal, progress, and reinvention around the country. That is the intended theme of this ongoing thread.

    With minimal elaboration, here are a few recent installments and bits of evidence toward this end:

    1. Progressive federalism: My friends Lenny Mendonca and Laura Tyson have written extensively on this phenomenon, and how exactly cities, states, and regions and work most effectively in a time of national dysfunction. (Lenny Mendonca is the former head of CalForward and recently announced chief economic adviser to new California Governor Gavin Newsom. Laura Tyson was head of Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council and is a professor at UC Berkeley.)

    In an article “America’s New Democracy Movement,” they detail a theme discussed here over the months, and evident in the 2018 mid-term results: moves toward structural improvements in the machinery of governance, at the local and state level. The state-level moves in the opposite direction, notably in North Carolina and Wisconsin, are well known. Mendonca and Tyson say there is an opposing and more positive trend:

    But the story of the 2018 midterms is about more than Trump and the future of his presidency. It is about an American electorate yearning for democratic reforms. Like in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century, when citizens and states spearheaded a wave of measures to improve democratic governance, voters from both parties used the election to signal their support for democracy….

    With the federal government mired in dysfunction and now in its third shutdown since January 2018, voters are taking charge. Come 2020, there is every reason to expect that “progressive federalism” will usher in democratic reforms on a scale not seen since the heyday of the original Progressive movement.

    2. Also in California, the governor-once-removed Arnold Schwarzenegger is continuing his drive for progressive democratic reform, notably through anti-gerrymandering measures. On January 10 his institute at USC had a big “Fair Maps Incubator” conference about a new approach to districting. I look forward to seeing the results.

  • Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

    Trump Refuses to Soothe a Wounded Nation

    In the wake of a tragedy, a president must act as the leader of supporters and critics alike. Trump has proved incapable of this.

  • The Ripple Effects of the Shutdown Reach the GPS System (and Beyond)

    In 2000, a Boeing Delta II rocket took a GPS satellite into orbit. In 2019, a government shutdown began degrading GPS coverage. Duffin McGee / Reuters

    As you read the accounts below, remember the point that Jon Tester, recently reelected Democratic senator from Montana, made this past week on the Senate floor: If one man, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, would let a “clean” budget resolution come up for a vote, it would certainly pass with both Democratic and Republican support.

    Extra reminder: As of December 18, the Senate had unanimously approved a “clean” funding measure, with White House assurances that Donald Trump would sign it. Then Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, et al. began mocking Trump for “weakness,” and he turned against the deal and began announcing the “crisis” at the border. That is the backstory to the needless disruption and destruction now underway.

    Here we go with today’s update. First, an underpublicized degradation of GPS coverage, with consequences for a wide range of businesses. A reader writes:

    Your readers might be interested in a little-known but serious consequence of the government shutdown: the loss of the public CORS data supplied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (see https://www.ngs.noaa.gov/CORS/).

    I work for a company that uses CORS data to apply real-time kinematics to vehicle GPS readings. The same CORS data is also used for surveying, GPS-guided farming, and a host of other applications.  All of them will now be forced to rely on private data that may not cover all areas and whose quality may vary. The NOAA data, by contrast, comes from a unique public-private partnership that has very wide coverage. It's also accessible to academic institutions and startups.

    This strikes me as yet another way in which the shutdown hurts our core economic competitiveness. Your libertarian readers might think private companies can always make up a shortfall, but in this case they cannot: publicly-curated open-source data is unique.

    I suspect that the impact will be most severe on startups and academic projects, which means we are eating our seed corn. Imagine if the founders of Google had to pay high rates for Internet access back in 1995, or if Steve Jobs had to pay a private company for garage space when building Apple.

    I don't mean to equate this situation to the suffering of federal workers, but I think it's a distressing example of how the Republicans are willing to sacrifice America

  • ‘Both Sides’ and the Decline of Public Institutions

    The structure next to the White House now known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which in the 19th century was home of the State, Navy, and War Departments. The State Department is now located in its own building about half a mile away. The Navy and the War Department, now known as the Department of Defense, are across the Potomac River at the Pentagon. Library of Congress

    Yesterday I quoted a Foreign Service officer who is now on furlough. He described the current shutdown-induced emergency within the State Department and other agencies, but also the long-term decline in public institutions that it capped off.

    Several readers complained that the FSO was indulging in “both sides-ism,” in saying that “politicians” were responsible for the decline, rather than singling out Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. In the previous note I quoted a rebuttal to that effect.

    Now the Foreign Service officer who wrote the original note responds:

    I just looked at your site and saw the lengthy quote from my email.   I also saw the comment from the former Fulbrighter, as well as yours on the responsibility of Trump and McConnell for the current shutdown.  

    I agree with both of you.  

    I don’t wish in any way to draw moral or other equivalence between the Trump administration and those that came before it. In my opinion, the Trump administration has done far more damage to American democracy and the institutions that underpin it than any administration I can think of. Ever.  

    To make matters worse, Trump has been abetted in this wholesale destruction of our democracy by moral cowards such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, people who knew from the beginning that Trump was corrupt and incompetent, yet they grinned and stood behind him in order to satisfy their own ambitions and partisan goals.  

  • Shutdown Notebook: Decline and Fall

    From the late 1800s, the library at the State Department, during the era when the United States was building up the capacity of its diplomatic corps. That human and institutional capital is now being run down, a furloughed Foreign Service officer argues. Library of Congress

    A current member of the U.S. Foreign Service, originally from a non-coastal ag-economy town like those that my wife, Deb, and I have been writing about, describes how the abstraction of “the shutdown” feels to him and his colleagues.

    I could set it up further or highlight its implications, but instead I’ll just say, Please read and think about his account:

    For the first time in my 20+ years as a federal employee, I won’t get paid this week.  That hurts, but fortunately my wife—also a federal employee—gets paid out a different account, one that still has a “residual balance.”

    But probably not for much longer.  At that point, we’ll live off our savings while Congress and the White House continue to beat their chests and scream at one another, oblivious to the long-term damage they’re doing to our national interests.  

    My wife and I have savings to cover the gap, but many of our colleagues aren’t so lucky.  The State Department stopped paying salaries this week for nearly half the members of the Foreign Service, many of whom struggle to get by given the high costs of housing and child care in the Washington, DC area.  I don’t know how many civil servants also won’t get paid, but I assume it’s a lot.  Many of them work in low-paid clerical jobs in the DC area, and they can scarcely afford missing a single paycheck.

    The so-called Locally Employed Staff, aka the non-Americans who work at U.S. Embassies around the world, are still getting paid, but no one knows for how much longer.  Many of these local staff endure harassment and worse because they work for the U.S. government.  [JF note: Yes, I have seen this around the world, and know how heavily U.S. embassies and U.S. interests rely on these local workers.] Many of them live paycheck to paycheck, and should we stop paying their salaries, it really will hurt.  I suspect many will quit and never come back.

    For me, the worst part of this whole thing has been the confirmation—and I say confirmation rather than realization—that few in Washington in either party care about our federal institutions, much less the people who work in them.

    My colleagues and I could go bankrupt, and the institutions where we work—the very institutions that made the U.S. the greatest power in the history of the world—could wither and collapse, and almost no one in Washington would care, except to the extent that they could use the personal suffering and institutional failure to bludgeon and blame the other side.  

  • Federal Employees, On Dealing with the Shutdown

    One month ago, on December 11, Donald Trump telling Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi that he will be "proud" to take responsibility and blame for a shutdown. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

    In response to these past few items — “Let Them Eat Vacation Days,” “3 Simple Facts About the Shutdown,” and “Yet Another Reason to End the Shutdown” — furloughed federal workers write in about their experiences.

    Vacation days aren’t the bonanza that they may seem. Last night the head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Kevin Hassett, said in apparent seriousness that furloughed federal workers were “in a sense better off,” since they were in effect on “vacation” now and would eventually get back pay.

    One veteran federal worker, who is also a military veteran, disagrees:

    It's worth noting that even by Mr. Hassett's logic there's going to be workers that are considerably worse off, because an awful lot of federal workers carry "use-or-lose" vacation (I always did).

    One of our friends did, in fact, have a lot of vacation scheduled for January that she was forced to take.  Now she's furloughed instead -- and if the furlough ends in the next month, has to take that vacation right away.  Which means she'll probably just go to work "on vacation" to clear out a backlog -- she's not getting "free" vacation days, she's getting screwed out of them.  

    Yes, it’s complicated. Another worker to similar effect:

    Because the leave year ended January 5, and there is a maximum number of annual leave hours that can be carried forward, some of those furloughed employees were probably using "use or lose" leave.  I am unsure whether the furlough would justify restoration of that leave for all those employees.

    (My particular agency is permitting restoration, but that appears to be a agency decision, rather than a broadly-applicable OPM or OMB decision.)

  • Let Them Eat Vacation Days

    George Frey / Reuters
    From the PBS account on Twitter.

    This evening on the PBS Newshour, the chair of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors, Kevin Hassett, said this about workers who are going without pay as the government shutdown nears its fourth week:

    Right now about 25% of government workers are furloughed. Which means that they are not allowed to go to work.

    But then when the shutdown ends, they go back to work, and they get their back pay.

    A huge share of government workers were going to take vacation days, say between Christmas and New Year’s.

    And then we have a shutdown, and so they can’t go to work. So then they have the vacation, but they don’t have to use their vacation days. And then they come back, and they get their back pay.

    Then in some sense they’re better off.

    You can see it for yourself, in Hassett’s talk with PBS’s Paul Solman, starting at time 4:20 of this clip.  

    I spent enough time in grad-school economics courses to understand the utility-maximization “logic” Hassett is applying. (“Let’s see, the workers are getting all that free time over the holidays, and they still have vacation days in the bank, so overall they come out ahead!”) And in fairness to Hassett, he was talking about the roughly half of furloughed federal workers who are instructed to stay home and not work — rather than the air traffic controllers, TSA screeners, etc, who are told to show up and worry about their pay some other time.

    But I have spent enough time in the world to imagine how this will sound to people who have no idea when their regular pay will resume, whose lives and plans are being upended for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their own performance and competence, and who do not consider themselves in any sense “better off.”

  • 3 Simple Facts About the Shutdown

    Border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, in a photo from early 2008. During a period of increasing gang violence in Mexico, and flows of guns from the U..S. into Mexico, artists had decorated the wall with gun images. For decades, population centers along the border have had sections of fence or wall. Jorge Duenes / Reuters

    Today’s life-in-DC gazette: a little while ago I was in a line at a coffee shop with a middle-aged man, who from his accent I guessed (correctly) was from Nigeria. We talked while we were waiting. His was a standard life-in-our times story: He came to the US about 30 years ago. Now a citizen and small-business owner. Children all born here and in, or headed to, college. One of his nephews is a TSA screener at a DC-area airport.

    “His rent was due on the 5th, man,” he told me,  of his nephew. “He covered that, but then he was counting on his normal paycheck tomorrow. That’s not going to come, and he’s got his credit card payments. And he has to keep showing up at work each day.” The man I was talking to said he assumed he might have to tide his nephew over through the shutdown.

    We all “know” this is happening. But it can be easy to lose sight of how extraordinary and unfair it is. Not a single person within TSA—or the National Park Service, or the Food and Drug Administration, or the Census Bureau, or any other agency—has a single thing to do with the showdown over Donald Trump’s “wall.” But hundreds of thousands of them are being penalized and disrupted by what will soon be the longest shutdown in history.

    It can also be easy to lose sight of three baseline realities of this abusive situation. Here’s the summary, with a few more details on each, lower down.

    • Reality one: As recently as three weeks ago, Donald Trump was perfectly willing to keep the government open and defer funding for his wall— until a right-wing chorus made fun of him for looking “weak.”
    • Reality two: Trump and his Congressional party never bestirred themselves to fund this wall back when they had unquestioned power to do so, during the era of Republican control of the Congress in 2017 and 2018.
    • Reality three: the U.S.-Mexico border has come under more control in recent years, not less. It’s been controlled by fences and walls in the busiest areas — as has been the practice for decades. The “crisis” is the politics of the issue, not its underlying realities.

    Read on, for more details of each of the three. Or if you stop here, please keep those three points in mind.

  • Yet Another Reason to End the Shutdown

    At a bakery in Washington D.C. today, a deal for furloughed government workers. Offers like this, becoming widespread across the area, obviously help. Just as obviously, they're no substitute for regular pay. Deborah Fallows

    On Monday I mentioned what the prolonged government shutdown is doing to the nation’s air-travel system: namely, slowing it down.

    The whole system is based on built-in safety buffers. Everyone within it knows that air traffic controllers and TSA screeners, whose jobs are stressful enough at best, have new personal worries. Therefore controllers, dispatchers, TSA supervisors, and others who keep the traffic moving are building in extra protection, mainly by giving themselves more time.

    This means more separation for aircraft in what William Langewiesche called the “slam and jam” approach patterns to airports; more time for a screener to take another look at a bag; more caution about everything, since—shutdown or no—the consequences of a hasty mistake could be so grave. People running the system would be irresponsible to do anything else. (Yes, before you point it out: I realize how odd it sounds even to discuss “responsibility” in current circumstances.)

    Now Jirs Meuris, of the University of Wisconsin Business School, explains why this cautious approach is even more important than it may seem. In a research paper last fall, he discussed studies showing that the more worried employees were about their personal finances, the more accident- and error-prone they were in their work.

    For instance:

  • Susan Walsh / AP

    The Networks Blew the Call

    Once again, broadcasters prove hapless in the face of Trump’s three familiar tools.

  • Jim Urquhart / Reuters

    Trump Is Grinding the System to a Halt

    Thousands of air-traffic controllers and TSA employees continue to work without pay. It’s unfair—and it’s potentially dangerous.

  • The Trump-Centric Case for Jim Webb as Defense Secretary

    That was then: the four candidates who participated in the first Democratic debate of the 2016 cycle, in Las Vegas in October, 2015. From left: Hillary Clinton, Jim Webb, Martin O'Malley, and Bernie Sanders. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

    Last night I mentioned the latest Trump-appointment rumor: that the successor at the Pentagon to James Mattis, Marine Corps combat veteran and retired four-star general, might be James Webb, Marine Corps combat veteran and, among other distinctions, a former secretary of the Navy in a Republican administration and U.S. senator as a Democrat.

    My argument was that it would be good for the country if Webb somehow ended up in this position, but (given the track record of people serving under Trump) probably a nightmare for Webb himself.

    What I didn’t ask is: Why would Donald Trump be interested in the first place? Given his recent experience with one independent-minded Marine Corps figure who had a strongly established pre-Trump identity and record, why would he be looking for another?

    Readers have volunteered insights on this point. First, from a reader who was a constituent when Webb was senator from Virginia, and who has long experience in foreign-affairs branches of the U.S. government. This reader writes:

    As substantial a case as your post makes for James Webb as Secretary of Defense, Donald Trump and his supporters may be less interested in the qualities you cite than in some other points about Mr. Webb:

    -- When Webb dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary in October 2015, he asserted that the Democratic party had moved away from "'millions of dedicated, hard-working Americans,'" and he pointedly refused to say that he was still a Democrat.

    -- In November 2016, Webb denounced affirmative-action policies as an illegitimate expansion into "reverse discrimination" of the slavery-oriented intention of the Thirteenth Amendment.  He also suggested that white working-class voters believed that "Democrats don't like them."

  • The Man Who Made Air Travel Better Has Died

    The familiar colors of Southwest Airlines, at Las Vegas airport Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

    Almost everything that is “positive” about the modern air-travel experience, is positive thanks to Southwest Airlines. Upbeat staff and crew attitude, straightforward rather than hyper-opaque pricing, even the more-or-less egalitarian boarding process—these are all associated with Southwest.

    In the past few years, Southwest’s on-time performance has declined to just-average, and in 2018 it had its first-ever fatal accident aboard one of its (in which one person died; back in 2005, a Southwest plane skidded off the runway when landing in a snowstorm at Midway airport, and killed one person on the ground).  Still, when I have the choice—which is to say, when Southwest goes where I want to go—I have a bias toward Southwest.

    Two Texans, in 2007. Herb Kelleher at left. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

    In 1971, when he had just turned 40, Herb Kelleher co-founded Southwest. (And what have you done recently?) In the summer of 1975, when the airline was still getting going — and when I was working, based in Austin, for the then-fledgling Texas Monthly magazine — I did a cover story about Kelleher, his vision for air travel, and the “Great Texas Airline Wars” of that era, which Kelleher’s Southwest ultimately won.

    The story, again, is here. If there are things that seem out of date—hey, it was during the Gerald Ford administration, and when I reported and wrote it I was 25.

    I really enjoyed knowing Herb Kelleher. He died today, at age 87. RIP—and travel well, in his honor.

  • Will James Webb Be the Next Secretary of Defense?

    Then-Senator Jim Webb, ten years ago while visiting then-admired Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon. Reuters

    One of the odd-but-positive political rumors at the start of this odd year is that Donald Trump is considering former Senator James Webb as a successor to James Mattis as secretary of defense.

    Among the reasons why this would be odd:

    • Webb last held office as a Democrat, and even ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 2016 race.
    • Webb is a famously independent-minded character with no ability to suffer fools. (Knowing them both, I can say that Webb is much less willing to go with the organizational flow than Mattis has been.) In his early 40s, he was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Navy, but he resigned from that position within less than a year (having worked elsewhere in the Pentagon for several years) because of disagreements with the defense secretary of that era, Frank Carlucci.
    • Webb is a gifted novelist, essayist, and screenwriter, who has returned repeatedly to the self-directed literary life after his periods of public service.

    Reasons why it would be good news for the country, if it happened:

    • Webb is smart, tough, and principled.
    • He would instantly become the Cabinet member with most substantive knowledge of his department.
    • He would personify a response to the idea that the United States has become a “chickenhawk nation”—always at war, never willing to deal with the domestic or international consequences of war—and that the current administration itself represents the Chickenhawk Way.
  • Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    Now It’s Up to Congress

    James Mattis did his best. But the onus of dealing with Trump rests with the body invested with it by the Constitution.

  • Two Questions About a Surreal Oval Office Exchange

    Canary (left), and cat. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

    Please read my colleagues Russell Berman, Elaina Plott, and Amanda Mull on the spectacle that took  place this afternoon in the Oval Office.

    Like all but a handful of people, I saw this exchange first online, then in TV replays. Here are two body-language questions I wish I’d had the opportunity to judge up close and in person:

    1. Did Donald Trump register that Chuck Schumer was mocking him, to his face, with his “When the president brags he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble” line?

      I gasped when I saw that the first time. I’m conscious of having seen presidents from John F. Kennedy onward perform on TV, but never before have I seen one of them directly ridiculed by another senior governmental official. (To spell it out, the ridicule was Trump’s boasting about big Senate wins, based on unseating two endangered Democrats in very Republican states. Trump wasn’t talking about the results in West Virginia, Ohio, Arizona, Nevada, etc., nor of course about the House.) The closest comparison might be the labored humor of White House Correspondents Association dinners, in which the featured comedian would give the president—seated a few feet away—a celebrity-roast experience.  But that was ritualized joshing, sometimes more pointed and sometimes less. What Schumer did was impromptu and meant to convey, “Can you believe this guy?”

      That Schumer would dare make this taunt was surprising—though I suppose he could have thought to himself, “We’re two New Yorkers, we’ve known each other for decades, this is give and take.” The more surprising aspect was that Trump, hyper-alert to slights of any sort, didn’t seem to register what had happened at all. He came back with a bland, “Well we did win! We did win North Dakota, and Indiana”—as if Schumer had been challenging him on that factual point. It’s as if the response to “Ooooh, you won a participation award! You must be so proud!” had not been “Shut up!” but “Yes, I did win that.” You can see the back-and-forth starting around time 11:45 of this video.

      Did the president of the United States recognize that the minority leader of the Senate intentionally mocked him, and even turned to the press pool while doing so? From a distance, it appears that Trump did not catch this in real time. I would love to have been there to see for myself.

    2. Did Mike Pence register any emotion whatsoever, during the 15-minutes plus of this extraordinary exchange?

  • Joshua Roberts / Reuters

    Serving Trump Revealed Who John Kelly Always Was

    Some who enter this president’s service are changed for the worse. Others have been that way all along.