Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Emily Jan / The Atlantic

We’ve noticed some themes in the submissions to our #ReadingMyAtlantic contest. Pets, for one—including this perfectly-posed pup and CityLab editor Adam Sneed’s sassy cat Saxby. Variations on hygge, which I am extremely here for as the weather turns. And of course, babies—so many sweet, adorable kiddos. Which brings us to the winner of last month’s contest …

Zach Kouwe’s four-month-old Josephine won us over with her alert reading posture.

#ReadingMyAtlantic

A post shared by Zach Kouwe (@zkouwe) on

Kouwe, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, says this: “[Josephine] is mesmerized by books and magazines (just like me). We also recently discovered she loves being propped up on the couch as if she’s sitting up herself. I just recently got a subscription and this was my first issue so I decided to see if Jo might be as interested as me. She was!” We hope the two of them enjoy the November issue, too!

Speaking of which, the November issue features two cover stories on the topic of creativity: Walter Isaacson on the science behind Mona Lisa’s smile and Derek Thompson on Google X and radical creativity. The issue hits newsstands today. So what are you waiting for? Get your copy, get your phone, and show us (through a photo or a Boomerang) where you’ll be #ReadingMyAtlantic this month.

Entering is easy: Snap a picture or Boomerang of your November 2017 issue, and share it on Instagram using this hashtag: #ReadingMyAtlantic. This month, we challenge you to include spreads from inside of the magazine, dress it up for Halloween, and show us how you like to foster creativity in your life.

The winner will be notified in early November, and will receive a special prize package that includes a one-year digital subscription (if you’re already a subscriber, you can add on to an existing subscription or gift it to a friend), an Atlantic baseball cap, a notebook featuring the cover of our very first published issue, and a poster of the “My President Was Black” cover, highlighting Ta-Nehisi Coates’s story from earlier this year. The winner’s post will also be shared from our Instagram account, so give us a follow. Full contest rules can be found below.

Last month, we told subscribers about a major project we are, today, launching to the public: The Atlantic’s first-ever membership program.

This morning, as the project—called The Masthead—goes live, I wanted to write you to explain why I think this is so important, and why I hope that you become a founding member of this endeavor.

I have several main goals as The Atlantic’s editor in chief. The first, and of course most urgent, is to argue for the importance of fact-driven journalism at a time when the president of the United States has declared the press to be the enemy of the American people. My next three goals are related to the first: to make sure we publish journalism that honors our history; to guarantee, by extension, that we provide you, our readers, with journalism that helps you become more informed; and finally, to ensure that The Atlantic, which celebrates its 160th birthday this November, will reach its bicentennial year as a thriving, self-sustaining business with global reach and clear purpose.

I come from a print background, but I believe that for our journalism to thrive, it should appear on as many platforms as possible. Our founders—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and other eminences of their day—had only one vehicle for sharing their ideas: the printed journal. Today, The Atlantic manifests itself in print, in digital, in video, in live events, and in podcasts.

And now comes a new platform, one that will provide you with direct access to our best writers and thinkers. Our goal is to build a closer relationship with you, one in which you help inform our coverage; one in which we seek answers to your most pressing questions about the world; one in which we put our newsroom to work delivering you insights and analysis about the issues you care about most.

I am asking you today to become a founding member of The Masthead. You will not only receive some of our best journalism, written exclusively for our members; you will be directly underwriting The Atlantic’s future. I believe this is a worthy project, launching at a moment rife with challenges for independent journalism. Please join us in this next adventure.

Reuters / Yuri Gripas
Donald Trump, who is at one of his golf courses, early this morning.

The purpose of my 152-installment Trump Time Capsule series during the 2016 campaign was to record, in real time, things Donald Trump said or did that were wholly outside the range for previous serious contenders for the White House.

I’ve resisted continuing that during his time in office, because the nature of the man is clear.

But his Twitter outburst this morning — as he has left Washington on another trip to one of his golf courses, as millions of U.S. citizens are without water or electricity after the historic devastation of Hurricane Maria, as by chance it is also Yom Kippur — deserves note. It is a significant step downward for him, and perhaps the first thing he has done in office that, in its coarseness, has actually surprised me. (I explained the difference, for me, between shock and surprise when it comes to Trump, in this item last week.) Temperamentally, intellectually, and in terms of civic and moral imagination, he is not fit for the duties he is now supposed to bear.

***

All notes on "Trump Nation" >
Reuters / Carlo Allegri

The relationship between the drama of a presidential campaign, and the literature and reportage that come from it, is shaky at best.

By acclamation the best modern campaign-trail book, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer (see Molly Ball’s assessment here), came from the historically very uninspiring George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis campaign of 1988. The book took Cramer nearly four years to write. Along the way, he despaired that he’d missed his chance to get it out before the next election cycle and that all his effort would be in vain. But the book endures because of the novelistic richness and humanity of its presentation of the politicians Cramer is writing about—they’re not simply the charlatans, liars, and opportunists of many campaign narratives (though each has elements of that) but complex, striving figures with mixtures of the admirable and the contemptible. Cramer chose what also turned out to be the inspired strategy of giving full time not just to the two finalists but also to four of the also-rans who fell back along the way: Gary Hart, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, and the young Joe Biden.

My friend and former Washington Monthly colleague Walter Shapiro applied a similar “equal time for the also-rans” strategy in his elegant little book about the 2004 campaign, One-Car Caravan. The title refers to the humble origins of nearly all campaigns (i.e., all but Trump’s), in their early stages when the only reporter interested is crammed with staffers into the single campaign car. The 1968 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace campaign was brutal and violent; it also gave rise to Garry Wills’s memorable combination of reportage and scholarship, Nixon Agonistes, plus a book I remember being impressed by at the time, An American Melodrama by the British journalist team of Godfrey Hodgson, Bruce Page, and Lewis Chester. The 1972 Nixon-McGovern campaign was an all-fronts nightmare for the country, but from it came the lasting press chronicle The Boys on the Bus, by my college friend Timothy Crouse.

On the other side of the literary ledger are the routine backstage tick-tock accounts that over-apply the lesson of Theodore White’s seminal The Making of the President, 1960 book. White pioneered the idea that minutiae about what candidates ate, did, or said off-stage could be of great interest. Through overuse by other authors, and because the tick-tock is now a staple of regular campaign coverage, the approach long ago became a cliche. (A: “With an oozing Philly cheesesteak in one hand, Hillary Clinton forged her connection to the hard-pressed voters of this crucial swing state.” B: “It was not that Obama spurned the ritual of modern campaigning, he just did it appallingly badly. Faced with the famed Philly cheesesteak, after a day sampling various wursts, he couldn’t handle it, and promised to ‘come back for it later.’” One of these is a sentence from a real book about the 2008 campaign.)

* * *

This  is a setup for saying: The 2016 election, a low point for the nation, has produced some impressive works. For instance, two books that each spent time as leading national best-seller:

All notes on "Trump Nation" >
Brendan McDermid / Reuters

This week Jill Abramson, the estimable former executive editor of The New York Times, whom I’ve always admired and never criticized, contended that I had been “stoking” the idea that the NYT had a vendetta against Hillary Clinton.

That is false.

What I have argued, repeatedly during the campaign and most recently nine days ago in an item about Hillary Clinton’s new book, is that the Times very badly erred in its wild over-coverage of the Clinton email “issue,” and that this distorted coverage was, in turn, one of many factors leading to Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency.

All notes on "Hillary Emails" >
Reuters / USA Today Sports

Over the weekend I wrote about Donald Trump’s attacks on protesting NFL players, at a raucous rally in Alabama, and his tweeted threats that if North Korean officials didn’t change their tune, “they won’t be around much longer!”

A sample of the response—pro, con, amplifying, and correcting:

‘To Make America Great, Remind Us of What Makes America Exceptional ...’ A veteran of America’s current long wars writes:

I am a U.S Marine who has proudly served in Afghanistan and Iraq after a weekend filled with consternation over our president's comments and tweets. I'm convinced that he no longer cares about his job or national unity.

He turned an NFL protest into a wedge issue about the flag so that he can appeal to a base of voters he is letting down. If players want to protest on the sidelines before games it is their choice and I respect their right to do so.

As a U.S servicemen I have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution which grants the right to free speech, peaceful assembly as well as to petition the government for wrongs committed. How players or individuals choosers to exercise such  freedoms is not my concern but my commander in chief using the flag and the sacrifice made by military families as a wedge issue is what troubles me.

Being in the military you fight so that you have a home to come back to, you fight for a more "perfect union" but not to divide, politicize or segregate our nation on the basis of what voters believe in standing for the flag and which voters don't. I don't support the presidents effort to divide a nation already split on so many issues and unsure how to combat inequality.

To make America great he must remind us of what makes this nation exceptional which is our belief that freedom and justice exist for all and that all Americans are created equal with inalienable rights.

* * *

Trump Never Loses!’ From another reader:

Amidst the noise, I think you've overlooked last week's 'shocking' (but not surprising) reprise of one very basic Trump theme: TRUMP NEVER LOSES

All notes on "Trump Nation" >
Eric Liu (Citizen University)

If you happen to be in Redlands, California, on Thursday evening, September 21, I suggest you go by the headquarters of the tech company Esri to hear a talk by my friend Eric Liu, on the practical possibilities for civic engagement in our politically troubled age.

If you don’t happen to be in Redlands, I recommend getting Eric’s book, You Are More Powerful Than You Think. It addresses a central question of this age: what, exactly, citizens who are unhappy with national politics can do, other than write a check or await the next chance to vote.

This is a question I wrestled with immediately after last year’s election, in this Atlantic article, and in a commencement speech a few months later. But Eric, author of several previous books about the theory and practice of citizenship (including The Gardens of Democracy and A Chinaman’s Chance) and head of the Citizen University network, based in Seattle, has devoted his useful and enlightening new book to just this topic, in the age of Trump. He described some of its principles in a NYT interview with David Bornstein a few months ago. Essentially his topic is how to bridge the gap between thinking, “something should be done,” and actually taking steps to doing that something, on your own and with others. This also is the ongoing theme of Citizen University, which emphasizes that citizenship is a job in addition to being a status.

I’ll leave the details, of which there are many, to Eric — on the podium in Redlands or in the pages of his book. The high-concept part of his argument flows from these three axioms:

  • Power creates monopolies, and is winner-take-all. → You must change the game.
  • Power creates a story of why it’s legitimate. → You must change the story.
  • Power is assumed to be finite and zero-sum. → You must change the equation.

He goes on, in practical terms, to illustrate what these mean. The political question of this era (as discussed here) is how the resilient qualities of American civic society match up against the challenges presented by the lurches of Donald Trump. Can the judiciary adhere to pre-2017 standards? How will the Congress fare in its ongoing search for a soul? Will states and cities maintain their policies on the environment, on standards of justice, on treatment of refugees and immigrants? And how, fundamentally, can citizens play a more active and powerful role in the affairs of their nation? These and others are central struggles of our time. And Eric Liu’s book is part of the effort to push the outcome in a positive direction.

In roughly the center of this view of the Pee Dee River in South Carolina is the Snow's Island National Historic Landmark. These are the swamplands where the American forces led by Francis Marion applied guerrilla tactics against the British. Google Earth

The Ken Burns / Lynn Novick 18-hour series on The Vietnam War began its run on PBS on Sunday night and continues through this week and next. I felt about as familiar with that era as I could imagine—with its tensions at the time, with the journalism and literature that came out of it, with the historical assessments, with the war’s role in music and movies and others parts of pop culture and public imagination. Even so I found this a tremendously revealing series. I recommend it very highly. Please find a way to watch—now, or in the many streaming and download alternatives they are making available.

***

As with any attempt to grapple with a topic this vast and complex, and of such emotional and historical consequence, the Burns/Novick series is bound to be controversial. For one example of an avenue of criticism, see this review by veteran Asia-hand correspondent Jim Laurie, who was on-scene in Vietnam and Cambodia during the war.

Here’s another: When I did an interview with Burns and Novick for the upcoming issue of Amtrak’s The National magazine, I asked them about one of the central themes of their press-tour presentation of the project, as opposed to the video itself. Both Burns and Novick have stressed the idea that the divisions generated by the Vietnam war prefigure the polarization of Trump-era America.

To me, that seems a little too pat. Even though I argued back at the time that the “class war” elements of Vietnam were a central reason the U.S. remained engaged for so many years, so much has happened between then and now that it’s hard to trace a sensible connection from those times to these. Since the height of the fighting in Vietnam, we’ve had: the end of the draft; the disappearance of the Soviet Union; the emergence of China; multiple dramatic shifts in political mood (the arrivals of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, later Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump, were each seen as the dawns of new political eras); the 9/11 attacks; multiple wars; multiple booms and busts; multiple grounds for hope and despair. Donald Trump was on one side of the Vietnam class-war divide, with his student deferments and mysterious physical disqualifications. Figures as politically diverse as John McCain, Al Gore, John Kerry, Jim Mattis, and Jim Webb were on the other. But it’s hard to make a neat match of that cleavage 50 years ago to the multiple axes of disagreement now. To me, it seems easier to trace a line of descent from the Civil War—subject of Ken Burns’s first national-phenomenon film series, back in 1990—to Trump-era divides than from the Vietnam war.

I lay out this disagreement on a specific point as a set-up for emphasizing  how valuable and informative I think the series is overall. It is remarkable in interleaving the accounts of participants from opposite sides of the same battle— the Americans and South Vietnamese, but also the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong—all describing what they were afraid of, what their plans were, how they reckoned victory and defeat in struggles for control of a particular hill or hamlet. It offers abundant evidence of battlefield bravery and sacrifice, on all sides—but precious few examples of political courage or foresight, especially in the United States. It’s hard to say whether Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon comes off worse for the combination of strategic misjudgment and flat-out dishonesty in management of the war. The White House recordings from both men are spell-binding.

Please watch. And since most of today’s Americans had not even been born by the time the last U.S. forces left Vietnam, it’s all the more valuable for generations who know nothing about that era first-hand.

***

Further on the theme of linkages between Vietnam and previous American engagements, a reader makes the evocative connection to the first war that troops of the newly formed United States ever fought.

All notes on "Chickenhawk Nation" >
Emily Jan / The Atlantic

Last month, we watched you take your Atlantic magazine to school, to the kitchen, and to the back of your truck to view the Great American Eclipse. You enjoyed our issue with loved ones, and with some very photogenic furry friends. And of course, we were impressed with the photo taken by the winner of our inaugural Instagram contest, Chris Morales, who enlisted the help of his younger sister to capture this image in his bedroom at home in California.

In fact, we had such a fun time with last month’s #ReadingMyAtlantic Instagram contest, we’ve decided to do it again.

The October issue features three cover stories that focus on the Trump presidency: Jack Goldsmith on how Trump is testing the institution of the presidency, Eliot Cohen on America's changing role in the world, and Ta-Nehisi Coates on race as a motivating factor for Trump and his supporters. The issue will be on newsstands tomorrow. So grab your copy, grab your phone, and show us (through a photo or a Boomerang) where you’ve been #ReadingMyAtlantic lately.

Here’s how to enter: Snap a picture or Boomerang of you (and your friends! Pets! Babies! Get as creative as you’d like with it) reading your copy of the October 2017 issue, and share it on Instagram using this hashtag: #ReadingMyAtlantic. We’ll select a winner in early October—the prize includes a one-year digital subscription, an Atlantic coffee mug, and a limited-edition poster of the “My President Was Black” cover, highlighting Ta-Nehisi Coates’s story from earlier this year. The winner’s post will also be shared from our Instagram account, so give us a follow. Full contest rules can be found below.

To take your mind off politics, at least politics of the national-election variety, let’s take a look back on some of the oddities of the American college-admissions process, for which millions of families are gearing up right now.

Back in 2001, the Atlantic’s September issue featured a big story I had done, called “The Early-Decision Racket.” It was about the way elite-college admissions had been transformed, and warped, through the Faustian bargain of the “early decision” system. This is the arrangement in which a student’s chance of getting into a selective college goes up, but the student’s ability to choose another college, or bargain and comparison-shop for better financial-aid deals, goes away.

(By the way: that article got a lot of attention during the first ten days of September, 2001. Then on September 11 … )

A note that just arrived is an excuse for re-posting a link to that article, and for a reminder of how distorting the whole admissions process has become. Here’s the letter:

Today, I came across your article " The Early-Decision Racket" from September 2001 and, though it took lot of patience in this twitter crazed short attention span mind to read, it might as well have been written yesterday in September 2017. Amazing that after 16 yrs, an article can still be so fresh as if time stopped.

I wanted to share a story from my family and it fits the pattern perfectly.

My niece is a senior at [a prestigious private school]. Super smart kid with 3.98/4 GPA, SAT score in 1560/1600, loaded with extra-curriculars, Mayor's youth council chairperson, community service, UN youth assembly , etc. etc.... You get the picture.

Her mom is a wealthy [professional].

I have been working with my niece to help with college admission process.   She is super crazy about [some Ivy League and East Coast schools]. Wants to get into Penn but is torn about Georgetown and its Early Action program.  Has done summer courses at Duke but doesn’t want to apply there. Is also interested in Northwestern U. [Also dealing with Tulane.]

Every word of your article was like reading my own current experience in this  " ginned up marketing game played to achieve top ranks through selectivity and yields". The ultimate game is get that spigot running and build endowment wealth….

Colleges and parents are both willing players in the game

Some of the contributing factors

(1) More students realizing that their best shot at Ivy ranked college is EA or ED and taking that chance

(2) More Asian-Americans are coming of age. Ultra-competitive kids born to very educated parents (with both having college degrees) who migrated to US in the 90s and afterwards during the technology boom.

All notes on "The Value of College" >
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

There’s a lot to admire in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new essay. It’s one of those pieces that grabs you with its first paragraph and never lets go. The argument keeps gathering force, building on the striking imagery (“Trump cracked the glowing amulet open”) and the caustic scouring of the polemics (opioids are treated as a sickness, crack was punished as a crime), to the very end. At its heart is the undeniable truth that racism remains fundamental in American politics.

It’s the overwhelming, the single cause that Coates finds for the phenomenon of Donald Trump. It’s a cause no one in America should ever bet against. And it shapes every premise Coates lays down. Because he takes all white American political behavior as undifferentiated and founded on the idea of race, he faults me for writing a preelection essay in The New Yorker about the white working class. Since a majority of all categories of white people ended up voting for Trump, why single out white voters without college degrees, unless it’s to absolve them of their racism by invoking other factors, like class? Or worse, to extend them sympathy, since they’ve fallen into the lower depths where, unlike black Americans, they don’t “naturally” belong? Or, worse still, to absolve myself?

Kukula Glastris, who died this week at age 59. LifePost

Many people who knew or worked with Kukula Glastris described her as “the kindest” or “the most generous” person they had known. It’s a big world, and titles like that can be contested. But I’ve never met anyone whose combination of personal goodness, plus intellectual and professional abilities, exceeded Kukula’s. The large number of people fortunate to have known her now offer support to her husband Paul, and their children Adam and Hope, at the heartbreaking news of her death. Early this summer she developed respiratory problems, which steadily worsened until she died last Tuesday night, at age 59.

In the professional realm, Kukula became best-known for her work as books editor and very skilled story-magician at The Washington Monthly, the magazine of which her husband Paul became editor-in-chief and impresario, succeeding Charles Peters, more than 15 years ago. The psychology of editing requires a surface of encouragement/love/flattery — the ideal first words from any editor, to any writer, on first seeing any draft on any topic, are “Oh, this is going to be great! So wonderful! Now let’s just do this and this and...” — over a core of resolve. (“We’re not quite there yet, let’s look at this last section one more time...”) Kukula had both of these elements in abundance, along with the intellectual insight to know how a changed phrase, or a cut, or an addition, or an allusion could make the story stronger.