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 Takesby 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 Melodramaby 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:
Devil’s Bargain, a story about Steve Bannon and Donald Trump by my friend (and former Atlantic colleague) Joshua Green. It is fascinating, well-researched, and of lasting interest, despite Bannon’s ouster from the White House, because of his ongoing Breitbart- role.
Hillary Clinton’s own What Happened, as I argued 10 days ago, is much more interesting and edgy than the standard politician’s book. And while it places central responsibility for last year’s results on Hillary Clinton itself, it raises important questions about—and asks for similar introspection from—other participants, notably the “what about her emails?!?!” press.
Here are two more campaign-related books very much worth reading:
I watched the campaign through its ups and downs over the past two years; I often saw Katy Tur on her MSBNC and NBC broadcasts; I thought I’d heard, or could guess, pretty much what she would have to say.
In fact, this is also a quite revealing and powerful book, in addition to being very entertaining. Its details of Tur’s experience with the Trump campaign, from the start when she following what was assumed to be a brief novelty/vanity effort, to the fateful conclusion last November 8, amplify the strangeness of what we have been through—and the darkness.
Two themes are worth noting. One is the genuinely ugly menace of Donald Trump’s in-person dealings, especially with a young, attractive female reporter in whom he displayed an unsettlingly personal and intense interest during the campaign. (“There’s little Katy back there!” he would say randomly at rallies. In a famous episode, he gave her a backstage kiss before he went onto a TV show.) I won’t quote her whole description of an early interview with him, but it is disturbing, as are several of her other accounts. (She also talks about it, and the overall tone of menace, both from the candidate and from his supporters, in a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross.) Sample:
His face is tight. He spits out answers. He glares at me during the questions. He never smiles. Now I see [watching a replay of the interview] what my producer saw. Trump is angry….
“It’s a wrong statistic” he spits back [after a question]. “Go check your numbers! It’s totally wrong.”
He’s trying to steamroll. Intimidate. Talk down.
“It’s Pew Research,” I say.
Now he’s fuming.
His rage didn’t register in the moment. I thought it was all part of his schtick. The reality show star. But watching his face on-screen, it’s clear Trump isn’t playing.
The other theme that impressed me was Tur’s explanation of why she decided that she would be leaving the world of Trump coverage when the campaign was over, no matter how it turned out. If he won, it would have been natural to follow him to the White House press pool, but she decided that she would rather not:
That’s a reality of beat reporting. When the people, places, and businesses you know well do well themselves, you’re in demand. If they’re a big deal, your work is a big deal. If they take off, you career can take off, too. This is especially true if you not only have access but knowledge.
I’ve been thinking a lot about access lately. Access is seductive. Access means good nuggets from the campaign … And somewhere along the way, out here on the trail, wherever it is I am right now, I decided that access journalism isn’t worth it.
Tur doesn’t pretend this is some heroic sacrifice—she’s now a TV anchor—but she is thoughtful about the tradeoffs involved in “access” reporting.
She also makes a point of saying that she doesn’t vote, “because I think it’s fairer that way.” I think that’s crazy, for reasons I laid out in Breaking the News (when Len Downie of the Washington Post announced a similar policy back in the 1990s). But that’s an argument for another time. You’ll enjoy and learn from this book.
Thanks Obama is a very different book from these other three, starting with its focus on the 2008 and 2012 campaigns rather than 2016. Litt was a 20-something precinct worker in Obama’s 2008 campaign, and eventually became part of his White House speechwriting staff. He had worked for The Onion before trying political speechwriting, and his specialty at the White House (in addition to some heavy-weather policy work) was Obama’s comedy riffs. Among these were Obama’s last few White House Correspondents Dinner appearances, including his celebrated “Luther, the Anger Translator” routine at the 2015 dinner.
The book is genuinely charming, and perceptive. You can get an idea of Litt’s tone from his very effective Fresh Air interview last week.
White House speechwriters, as a class, are—well, writers. This makes it the more noticeable that the collection of effective memoir-books by them is thinner than you would expect. Walter Shapiro, mentioned above, was a speechwriter during the Carter administration—as was I, and Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker, and the novelist Jerry Doolittle, and the newspaper editor Griffin Smith, and the now-Congressional candidate Bob Rackleff, and the newspaper reporter Achsah Nesmith, and others.
You could find a similar lineup for most administrations (until this one). But graceful, instructive, wry speechwriter memoirs like Litt’s are the exception rather than the norm. I think Thanks, Obama will join the ranks of lasting works about the culture and texture of political life, and of coming-of-age accounts by staffers who grow up personally and politically at the same time. (This is a category whose towering examples range from literary memoir-essays like The Education of Henry Adams, to romans-a-clef like All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren and The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer, to serious policy-essays like A Political Education by Harry McPherson. Please read them all!)
Staff memoirs are easier to write, or at least more fun, if you’re describing a meltdown or race-to-the-bottom political disaster—as in John Podhoretz’s mordantly comic Hell of a Ride, about his experience with George H.W. Bush. (I don’t agree with Podhoretz on much, but this is a funny, interesting book.) When I wrote about the Carter administration long ago in this magazine, it was also with a “how did that happen?” tone.
Litt takes on a much higher degree of difficulty by being mainly positive and respectful of Obama and his achievements. But he avoids a pious or reverent tone by directing many of his comic talents at himself. He’s aiming for, and mainly achieves, a self-presentation as a barely-skirting-disaster naif who gradually learns what he is supposed to do. The hoary Hollywood joke is that once you can fake sincerity, everything else is easy. The political counterpart involves being able to feign self-deprecation. It’s appealing in a speaker—one reason Donald Trump simply could not perform as a Correspondents Dinner-style after-dinner humorist is that self-deprecation is a necessary part of the schtick, but is wholly outside his range—and it’s appealing in an underling’s memoir like this.
Perhaps there are some people who, summoned to the Oval Office for the very first time, walk in there like it’s no big deal. Those people are sociopaths. For the rest of us, attending your first Oval Office meeting is like performing your own bris.
To make matters worse, when you have a meeting in the Oval Office, you don’t just go into the Oval Office. First you wait in a tiny, windowless chamber. It’s kind of like the waiting room in a doctor’s office, but instead of last year’s Marie Claire magazines they have priceless pieces of American art. And instead of a receptionist, there’s a man with a gun. And in a worst-case scenario, the man with a gun is legally required to kill you.
It turns out this little room is the perfect place to second- guess every life choice you have ever made… I was on the verge of losing it completely when one of the president’s personal aides emerged.
“Okay. He’s ready for you.”
To my credit, the first time I walked into the Oval Office, I did not black out. In front of me I could see a painting of the Statue of Liberty by Norman Rockwell. Behind me, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Emancipation Proclamation. Not a photocopy or poster. The. Emancipation. Proclamation. I didn’t turn to look at the document, but I could feel the message it was sending through the room.
“I’m here because I freed the slaves,” it seemed to say. “What are you doing here?”
And, when it comes to the But Seriously Now part of the book, Litt says:
Eight years in Obamaworld taught me focus. Each news cycle—already shrunk to twenty-four hours when POTUS took office—lasted mere seconds by the time he left. He faced constant pressure to approach every issue with the frantic, hair- on- fire urgency of a tweet. More than once, I found myself frustrated by the president’s patience. To me it seemed more like delay. But nine times out of ten, Obama was right. The secret to solving big problems, I learned, is knowing which little problems to ignore.
The list of things Obamaworld Taught Me could go on for several pages. I learned that decisions are only as good as the decision-making process. That generosity is a habit and not a trait. That all human beings, even presidents, look goofy chewing gum.
But here, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the single most valuable lesson I learned in public service: There are no grownups, at least not in the way I imagined as a kid. Once you reach a certain age, the world has no more parents. But it contains a truly shocking number of children. These children come in all ages, in all sizes, from every walk of life and every corner of the political map.
And this is the reason I’m most grateful for my time in Obamaworld. For eight formative years, often against my will, I was forced to act like an adult….
I read the book cover-to-cover in one evening. Very well done.
* * *
It’s a dark time, with some positive notes. These are worth your attention.
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.
Here’s an example of the kind of thing I had in mind: the blow-out front-page treatment in the Times, just 10 days before the election, of the “Comey letter” on Clinton’s emails:
And here’s an example of the effect that media over-coverage of email had:
Crucially, the point is not that likely Trump voters were carefully reading the Times. Rather it’s that the Times has an enormous steering and legitimizing effect on the rest of the media, notably including cable TV news. If the Times is treating email “questions” as worth continued coverage on its front page, something must be going on there.
And the email coverage was notoriously followed by this item, the week before the election:
* * *
Am I saying this is a vendetta? I am not, and have not—though I unwisely used that word one time, back in the summer of 2015 when the Trump campaign had barely begun, in a tweet about a letter the Clinton campaign had sent to the Times. (You want to see an argument that the Times has an anti-Clinton vendetta? I give you The Daily Howler. For what it’s worth, I’ll note that the Howler is no fan of my own work. Or, from someone I’m on better terms with, see Joe Conason in The National Memo,here and here.) I have no inside info about the newsroom deliberations that went into what I consider hugely excessive coverage of the email “issue”—which, for the record, occurred after Abramson was out of her job at the Times. I haven’t written online or in-print articles contending that the Times was purposefully anti-Clinton. I understand why conservatives laugh at the idea that the Times was against the presidential candidate its editorial page so strongly endorsed.
What I have emphasized is effect: the prominence the Times so memorably gave the email story, rather than any assumption about the underlying cause. In most news organizations, the vast majority of things the public complains about arise from haste, from honest error, from decisions that seemed sensible at the time. For instance: this weekend, meeting a deadline, I said about the 1968 Olympics what I thought I remembered: that the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos had been stripped of their medals, after their medal-ceremony protest against U.S. racism. In fact, as many readers wrote in to point out, Smith and Carlos were expelled from the games—but didn’t lose their medals. It was a mistake of haste on my part, which we’ve recognized and corrected.
I don’t know why the Times covered Hillary Clinton’s emails the way it did. But I believed then, and do now, that its emphasis was excessive. I stand by what I wrote last week, in the item about Hillary Clinton’s book:
No sane person can believe that the consequences of last fall’s election—for foreign policy, for race relations, for the environment, for anything else you’d like to name (from either party’s perspective)—should have depended more than about 1 percent on what Hillary Clinton did with her emails. But this objectively second- or third-tier issue came across through even our best news organizations as if it were the main thing worth knowing about one of the candidates….
The press is among the groups that messed this up, badly, in particular through the relentless push in New York Times coverage that made “but, her emails!” a rueful post-campaign meme. With this book, Hillary Clinton has gone a considerable distance toward facing her responsibility for the current state of the country. Before any news organization tells her to pipe down or stop explaining herself, I’d like to see them be as honest about their own responsibility.
* * *
Imbalanced and credulous Times coverage of the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) threat from Iraq, in 2002 and early 2003, was not the only or even the main reason the George W. Bush administration went ahead with its disastrous invasion. But it was a legitimizing and enabling factor. To its credit, afterwards the paper approached this as a mistake deserving re-examination. (For instance, here and here and here and here.)
Imbalanced and credulous (in my view) Times coverage of the Clinton email “issue” was not the only or even the main reason that Donald Trump carried the Electoral College. But it was a legitimizing and enabling factor. In contrast to their response to the Iraq problems 15 years ago, Times editors now seem to resist the very idea that they have anything to re-examine in their approach to the 2016 campaign. I think they do, and that it would enhance rather than diminish their standing in the public eye as our leading national news organization to be open in discussing what went right and wrong, and why.
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
On Friday morning I read the accounts of the Alabama debate wherein Strange [appointed incumbent “Big Luther” Strange, whom Trump was backing] accused Moore [the Bannon-favorite challenger, Judge Roy Moore] of proposing that Trump was being manipulated by McConnell.
I wondered that Moore did not respond that Trump the deal-maker was not being manipulated, but instead was consciously fulfilling a commitment to McConnell in pursuit of the Trump agenda. More could have said that Trump did so fully expecting Strange to lose anyway, and that he, Moore, even approved of that deal by the savvy President because, on the day after the election, Alabamians could be sure Trump would thank them for choosing Moore, the true Trumpian.
Or something like that.
But how validated I felt when on Friday night Trump did not even go through the motions of waiting for Tuesday. Instead already—at the very rally where he was “supporting” Strange— he semi-endorsed Moore, while claiming for himself credit that Strange was [getting as much support as he did]. Clearly, if Strange wins it will be because Trump is awesome—and if Strange loses it will be because Trump is awesome but couldn't carry *such* a feeble candidate across the finish-line.
Perhaps this will fit well in your next piece later this week when Trump responds to two glaring failures: the Alabama election and the final attempt to repeal Obamacare. All politicians hedge, but not all are able to *pre-hedge* like this one, are they? My supposition is that 'the great deal-maker' has never in his life before had an ally - or even a friend - with and for whom he makes a commitment. Hell, I guess I'd even add here a *wife*, recalling his history of infidelity and especially his boast that he's never heard Melania fart. A strange and very sad man.
* * *
America’s Original Sin
In my piece I said that even a president as divisive as Richard Nixon had tried to avoid explicitly inflaming racial tensions in his public statements. “Law and order” dog-whistles are a different matter. Along the way I said that the history of slavery was “America’s longest-standing injustice and wound.” A reader suggests this adjustment:
I would argue only one point, and it is that our nation's longest standing injustice is to the Native Americans. It is not only a point of chronology, but of an intentional and systematic destruction of the Native people. The systematic enslavement, import, breeding and trafficking of humans is no less egregious. But by killing off the First Nations, and inhumanely dealing with the remaining population, we have millions fewer disenfranchised to have to "deal with."
As a Scots American woman I understand fighting wars that aren't "one's own", tribal differences, cultural separation, social nuance, and political embarrassment. How Donald Trump manages to package it all into one weekend of human offense and carnage is a reflection of a deeply disturbed mind. That the party of old white men refuses to care for the welfare of their constituents boggles and deeply disturbs my mind.
* * *
‘Girl in the Well’
Twenty years ago, in my book Breaking the News, I wrote about the “girl in the well” media frenzy of the late 1980s. In Midland, Texas, a toddler who became (at the time) world-famous as Baby Jessica fell into a well. For several days the nascent cable-news industry focused round-the-clock attention on the drama of whether Baby Jessica could be saved. (She was.) For a wonderful and incredibly dark movie that presaged this drama, which itself presaged this era’s disaster-centric media coverage, check out Billy Wilder’s underappreciated 1951 classic, Ace in the Hole.
A reader applies girl-in-the-well logic to the current president:
I think you wrote about [Baby Jessica] in your book on the media. The current administration is so awful in so many ways that it would be boring if it weren’t so dangerous.
Hence, the escalation of outrageousness by the head of state. Trump is "the girl in the well" and he has to keep digging himself into the well to keep the attention on himself. The worse he is, the more coverage he gets. I don’t know if there’s a solution but I hope somehow something changes and soon.
* * *
Smith and Carlos
In my item I mentioned the world-famous raised-fist salute that American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both black, gave while being awarded their gold and bronze medals (respectively) for the 200-meter run. In the original version of the note, I said that an infuriated Avery Brundage, the conservative and very controversial head of the International Olympic organization (he had strongly opposed efforts to boycott Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, in Berlin), had stripped them of their medals. Track experts, especially an Olympic historian named Bill Mallon, say that’s not right: Smith and Carlos were expelled from the games but kept their medals.
A reader in New York suggests another correction:
I was pleased, although not happy, to read your essay. (I suppose the distinction between “pleased” and “happy” can, alas, join that which you identified between “surprised” and “shocked”.)
For all that, I do feel compelled to express a reservation about one detail in the essay. In describing Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s gesture in their podium demonstration, during the 1968 Olympics 200-m. medal ceremony, you state that,
“they raised their black-gloved fists in what was then known as a “Black Power” protest salute.”
Such raised-fist gestures were, of course, frequently described as “Black Power salutes”—and that often reflected the purpose of those who made the gesture. And if that were indeed what Smith and Carlos had intended, then that description would be fine.
But Smith and Carlos have written and said, clearly and emphatically, that they were not making a “black power” salute, but a human rights salute. (E.g., Tommie Smith, David Steele, Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith, pp. 16-17 (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2007).) They were protesting a complex set of issues in athletics, and in politics and society beyond athletics. Racial injustices were absolutely a major element among those issues, but race was not the sole, or even predominant, focus of their protest that day.
Smith and Carlos have been clear about what they were doing, for almost 50 years, and proper respect to them requires that our descriptions of their actions accurately reflect their stated intent.
By the way, I have also seen video of interviews with both men, over the years, in which they address the accounts that state they were stripped of their medals. They have consistently said that no one took away their medals, and the medals remain in the possession of them or their families.
And, from another reader in California:
Your mention of John Carlos and Tommie Smith in your recent article about President Trump’s recklessness prompts me to write you to encourage you, if you are ever in San Jose, to visit the statue on the campus of San Jose State University commemorating their stand on the medal ceremony.
When I first came across the statue a few years ago I was taken aback by how emotional it made me feel. There was a sense of pride I never would have anticipated, arising in large part I suppose from having grown up in Santa Clara County, graduating from San Jose State University, and being a part of the CSU system, but more than that a sense of gratitude for their protest. You can stand on the statue with Carlos and Smith, if you wish, as Peter Norman’s spot is unoccupied, but if you do so you are physically dwarfed, appropriately, by Smith and Carlos.
It’s a reminder of how large their protest was and is in the public mind. Their moment, though, though calculated, was short, and it was so simple, but it has resonated so much for so many people since then. It’s a great reminder that we don’t have to try to do great things – we just have to remember to keep trying to do good things.
* * *
A Dissenting View
For completeness, this is a representative—yes, representative—sample of a dissenting note. Like 99 percent of notes with this tone, it came without the sender’s real name. From Russia? From someone aggrieved in the United States? I don’t know.
Subject: Fuck off
Damn you mother fucking feckless fuckers !
Trump was spot on in his remarks about these elitist arrogant bastards of the NFL!
If these fucking assholes wish to not honor the flag and the National Anthem of this country they can all go to hell and we will see that they get there!
Game Over! These over paid self absorbed son of a bitches make me sick! So .... get over it you lame brain leftist. The good people of this country have had enough !
THE DAME JO
No kidding: I would publish a better defense of Trump’s tweets if one had come in. But this is the kind of thing that arrives.
Minutes before posting, this more-polite version of a supportive argument for Trump came in:
I’m not a big fan of Trump but I do believe that these very well paid athletes who spurn the pledge of allegiance should think about where else they could be so well off . They are able to go to great schools with B averages and yet still chose to be disrespectful to a symbol that many people died for .
You work for the Atlantic which an old friend worked for . His only flaw was that he like to complain about our system because he was a devout marxist underneath it all . You seem to be on the same track which is probably why you also work for that rag . The republicans abolished slavery but I guess you never learned that at HARVARD .
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.
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.
A reader of the Vietnam era / Boomer era, who grew up in South Carolina, writes:
I saw your recent post in the Atlantic about the upcoming Ken Burns film on the Vietnam War and I remembered this place, the camp/hideaway for General Francis Marion and his irregular forces in the American Revolution. It is about as inaccessible now as then, even following designation as a national historic site.
SC requires a course on state history for all public school students in the 8th or 9th grade. I took the class in 1968 or 1969. My teacher emphasized the role of SC in the American Revolution. We dug deep into British strategy and the tactics of SC partisans to undo British work. At home, I watched the network news on TV with my parents. What I recall is coming home one day and telling my mother that Vietnam is like the Revolution in SC, but with U.S. forces being the British…
‘[Other generals] exhausted the British/Loyalist forces. Irregular forces, such as those of General Marion and other guerrilla leaders in SC disrupted British movement and communications while the Continental Army remained a viable military threat in the field….
In "Making Bricks without Straw", John Dederer argues, not with complete success, for the proposition that the Mobile Tactics of Mao and Giap are the same in essence as the tactics used in SC in the last year of the Revolution.
More convincing is a reply I received from Walter Edgar, the leading historian of SC. He has written several books on the Revolution in SC and served as a Captain in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He did not give a full-on yes, but a qualified agreement that there is meaningful similarity in actions of the Continental Army/partisan militia in SC in the Revolution and the VietCong/NVA in Vietnam.
In any case, it is useful, when looking at all the jungle footage on display in Burns documentary, to consider the situation of British Troops and their commanders as they wandered the swamps of the SC low country looking for fighters such as General Marion. This was alien land.
Whatever resonances you find to other struggles in American history, I hope you’ll watch this new saga of Vietnam.
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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.
(3) Growing economies in Asia/Americas has given middle class kids a chance to get US education. This is driving a big increase in international applications submitted.
Colleges are in the race to attract the best and the wealthiest and keep upping the game. Duke, which was missing from your article, has become a big player too in this game.
People's don't think much about growing endowments at these top ranked colleges but in the end the whole education industry has become a single minded pursuit of wealth preservation and capital growth. If offering education is the avenue to achieve that goal, so be it.
I have met number of professors at different universities who fight for federal grants to do basic research. They admit that without these grants, most colleges would not be able to pay to keep them and thus getting more money is imperative to self-preservation even when the research yields no tangible outcomes.
Some articles below from this year will tell you about the current state of what you wrote about in 2001
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?
During the campaign, poll after poll showed that the two main indicators of support for Trump, in differing degrees, were varieties of bias and a sense of economic decline. I wrote about white working-class voters because their political behavior is increasingly different from that of well-educated, professional whites, in ways that paint the current map of America red. From Roosevelt to Reagan, Clinton, Obama, and Trump, they’ve become the key swing vote. The razor-thin election results in the Rust Belt bore my essay out.
At the heart of American politics there is racism. But it’s not alone—there’s also greed, and broken communities, and partisan hatred, and ignorance. Any writer who wants to understand American politics has to find a way into the minds of Trump voters. Any progressive politician who wants to gain power has to find common interests with some of them, without waiting for the day of reckoning first to scourge white Americans of their original sin. This effort is one of the essential tasks of politics.
You didn’t hear it from Coates, but in my essay I discussed the relation between race and class, arguing that bigotry is fixed and immutable in some people, while in others bias can be manipulated by a demagogue like Trump depending on circumstances. I added that anyone who supported Trump, for whatever reason, “will have tried to put a dangerous and despicable man in charge of the country.” I didn’t excuse or extend comfort to anyone. Analysis isn’t justification—unless you think, as Coates does, that the entire subject is illegitimate for scrutiny because it’s an evasion of the truth about white supremacy.
Some misreadings are so serious that they’re baffling—as when Coates accuses me of dismissing concerns about police brutality, draconian sentencing, and other wrongs, just because I quoted Lawrence Summers using the word “diversity” in describing the Democratic coalition. It’s the kind of distortion brought on by zealous pursuit of the single cause. Did I also fail to understand that there’s such a thing as white identity politics? I started reporting on it a decade ago, when Sarah Palin—Trump’s John the Baptist—first strutted onto the scene. Ignoring the black working class because its condition is supposedly the proper order of things? A central part of my most recent book, The Unwinding, is about a black factory worker and her struggling community in Youngstown, Ohio. I don’t ask Coates to read everything I’ve written, but I’ll ask him to stop thinking he can see into my soul and find the true source of my ideas in my white privilege.
When you construct an entire teleology on one cause—even a cause as powerful and abiding as white racism—you face the temptation to leave out anything that complicates the thesis. So Coates minimizes sexism—Trump’s disgusting language and the visceral hatred of many of his supporters for Hillary Clinton—as background noise. He downplays xenophobia, even though foreigners were far more often the objects of Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policy proposals than black Americans. (Of all his insults, the only one Trump felt obliged to withdraw was his original foray into birtherism.) Coates doesn’t try to explain why, at one point in the campaign, a plurality of Republicans supported Ben Carson over the other nine candidates, all white. He omits the weird statistic that slightly more black and Latino voters and slightly fewer whites went for Trump than for Mitt Romney. He doesn’t even mention the estimated 8.5 million Americans who voted for President Obama and then for Trump—even though they made the difference. No need to track the descending nihilism of the Republican Party. The urban–rural divide is a sham.
Then there’s the fact that Trump’s support among working-class whites fell from two-thirds on Election Day to 43 percent last month. Has Trump gone soft on the bigotry? Or has he failed to deliver on the rest of his package—cleaning up corruption and doing amazing deals and making America great again? Coates might need more than one cause to explain it.
That 46 percent of voters, overwhelmingly white, chose Trump—that some chose him because of bigotry and some while overlooking it—that more than a third of the country still supports him: all this is hideous enough. But we live in a time of total vindication, when complication and concession are considered weaknesses, and counter examples are proof of false consciousness. This spirit has taken over Coates’s writing. In this essay and other recent work, he’s turned away from the self-examining quality of his earlier writing to a literary style that’s oracular. He has become the most influential writer in America today; this latest Atlantic essay is already being taught in college courses. He has never written more powerfully, and the sentences sweep you along because they don’t yield for a second to anything.
But the style of no-compromise sacrifices things that are too important for readers to surrender without a second thought. It flattens out history into a single fixed truth, so that an event in 2016 is the same as an event in 1805, the most recent election erases the one before, the Obama years turn into an illusion. It brushes aside policy proposals as distractions, and politics itself as an immoral bargain. It weakens the liberal value of individual thought, and therefore individual responsibility, by subordinating thoughts and individuals to structures and groups. It begins with the essential point that race is an idea, and ends up just about making race an essence.
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.
One of the Monthly’s strongest recent pieces was “The Best Health Care Money Can’t Buy,” a harrowing but revelatory narrative by Samuel Jay Keyser, a linguistics professor at MIT, about how Veteran’s Administration medical care literally saved his life. When I mentioned via Twitter how much I admired the piece, Paul Glastris immediately sent me an email: “Jim, you probably didn't know this, but Kuku was the one who edited the story! One of the many things I can't wait to tell her when she wakes up.” The last was a reference to her already being under sedation as doctors struggled to find out what exactly was wrong with her lungs.
Paul’s note also suggested something about the relationship between the two of them. Like a large number of people in today’s political-journalism world, Paul had gotten his early training in writing-and-editing at the magazine he now edits, The Washington Monthly, under Peters, its legendary founder. (This year Peters published, at age 90, his latest and excellent book, We Do Our Part.) I had worked at the Monthly several years before Paul and have considered him a colleague and good friend for decades. He is a talented reporter and editor and entrepreneur and writer. (Before taking over the Monthly, he spent time as Bill Clinton’s chief White House speechwriter.) But he is also a tremendously big-hearted, buoyant, cheerfully tough person. Whatever is the Greek counterpart for mensch would apply perfectly to Paul (who is almost comically proud of his Greek heritage)—and, with further gender and nationality adjustments, to Kukula as well. The two of them had a tremendous amount of joy together, and brought joy to others, including through their response to a range of difficulties they faced separately and as a couple, with a jauntiness that set a standard for all around them.
Beyond her professional work, and among people who had no idea about her editorial skills, Kukula left a huge and positive impression through her generosity, love, and humor. You can get some idea of what she meant to her varied communities through messages at this LifePosts site. Those who knew her are the better for her presence in our lives. Paul, Hope, Adam, and their extended family are grieving now but will always carry her influence and example with them. Sincere sympathies to them, and thanks for sharing Kukula.
Earlier this month, Jon Emont investigated why it’s so difficult for “baby religions” to get off the ground. That got me wondering: To the extent that modern people are attracted to new religious movements, what are the features that they find most compelling? I asked readers who’ve participated in such movements to share their experiences. Nearly 400 replied. Here are three responses that stood out.
For Kwabena Slaughter, the Sankofa faith (also known as Afrikania religion) offers a way to blend traditional African religions with modern Western life:
This is a religious organization in Ghana that merges elements of the traditional religions of Ghana with prayer practices similar to those in Christianity. The active recruiting arm of the group is the Afrikan Renaissance Mission (A.R.M.). They court people from Ghana and across the African diaspora who live modern lives, and teach them about the values of traditional African religion.
It’s trying to cultivate the moral stricture of traditional African religions without the herbalism and shamanistic practices that are also part of African religions. The primary religious ceremony takes place on Sundays. The service is less raucous than an African-American Baptist church service, but not as tame as a Catholic Mass. The interaction of Africa and the Western world are fundamental parts of the structure. The Sankofa faith has as its target audience those Africans who have moved entirely into a modern life.
I studied with the A.R.M. for a month in 1998, becoming an Osofo (priest) in the faith. One of the things I enjoyed was going through religious training and initiation rituals alongside Africans from other parts of the diaspora. There were Ghanaians, British, and Americans all participating. It had a quality of creating a shared religious pursuit between all diasporans.
Roxana Ross appreciates the universalist vision of the Urantia Book. First published in 1955, it includes a biography of Jesus but deviates from some Christian tenets, and some say it was authored by celestial beings. She writes:
I read the Urantia Book partially when I was in high school and read all 2,097 pages while living in Chicago in my early 20s. It provided answers to so many questions I had about God, the purpose of life, and about Jesus’s life. It confirmed that all people are children of God, not one specific group in preference to another. It does not require you to give up your own church or beliefs, but rather offers a deeper explanation of Jesus’s life so that you can experience his message for yourself.
When I was around 12 years old, I attended a Christian church summer camp for a week. My group leader learned I had never been baptized. She wanted me to accept Christ as my Savior or I risked going to Hell. I asked her about all the people in the world, like Buddhists or Jews or atheists or Muslims, who didn’t believe in Christ—were they all going to go to Hell? I couldn’t believe a loving God would do that to his children. I still don’t believe that. I do believe in the Urantia Book because I find its message logical, cohesive, reassuring, and even scientific. It is beautifully written.
David Drimmel writes about the sense of connection offered by The New Message from God, a movement based on the teachings of Marshall Vian Summers, an American who says he received divine revelations about alien life and other things:
The New Message from God is unique in that it emphasizes the importance of the theology of the greater community of intelligent life. It has broadened my perspective and understanding of what humanity is facing in the world today, the alien phenomenon, and quenches my thirst for knowledge about life in the universe.
When I first learned about the New Message, it was like I had been waiting for it, searching for it all my life. What sticks out for me the most is the emphasis on building the four pillars of my life on relationships, health, work/providership, and spiritual growth. The chapters about the pillars in the book Living the Way of Knowledge helped me see my life from a perspective that engages me in relationship instead of the disconnected, depressive state I was in. Essentially, I was called out of my depression and into the world.
Last month, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I emceed an hour-long discussion with Xavier Becerra, the new Attorney General of California, on how the nation’s most populous state planned to deal with a national administration that was taking a very non-California approach on topics from climate change to immigration. Becerra, a son of immigrant parents and graduate of Stanford and Stanford Law School, had been a long-serving congressman from a predominantly Latino district on the north side of Los Angeles. Michelle Cottle did a very nice profile of him for the Atlantic a few months ago. When Kamala Harris, who had been the state’s Attorney General, resigned to take her seat as a new U.S. Senator this year, Governor Jerry Brown—who (among his many other roles) had been Harris’s predecessor as AG — invited Becerra back from service in Washington to Sacramento, where as it happens Becerra had grown up.
There is no video of the session (that I’m aware of), but a Soundcloud audio file has just gone online. You can listen to it here or here. I found it enlightening—about Becerra himself, about California, about the country.
On Friday—a few hours before Donald Trump pardoned ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, and before Hurricane Harvey made its devastating landfall on the Texas coast—I posted an item about Donald Trump’s newly redecorated Oval Office, which differed from his predecessors’ in one notable way. I asked readers if they could spot the main difference—which, for me, was the proliferation of flags beyond what most of his predecessors had displayed, especially beribboned military battle flags.
A huge amount of mail came in about another aspect of the new office, which I hadn’t noticed or mentioned. Obviously this does not “matter” remotely as much as the genuine emergencies now underway. But there was so much correspondence, and enough of it dealt with patterns of leadership and management, that I am reprinting some of it here.
(Editing note: I have shortened most of these messages, but otherwise I have left them unedited from the form in which they arrived.)
These first few are about the message of the Oval Office photos that I hadn’t mentioned:
Re your post on the Oval flags: Another detail that struck me in the pictures of the Oval was the position of the chairs near the president’s desk. Trump has four facing him, all the others have one or two on the side. I’m certain I’m reading too much into this, but: a president with no real confidents? A president who takes no counsel? A president who speaks “to” people and not “with” people.
It may very well be they aren’t always arranged that way, a striking detail for me nonetheless.
Pop culture apropos: I remember one of the final scenes ever of the West Wing being so powerful precisely because of those chairs. As I recall, the new president’s staff briefs him, they exit the Oval, and then the chief of staff, played by Bradley Whitford, takes his place in the side chair and begins to advise the president. A simple scene, but a powerful demonstration of what it means to be a counselor to a president.
To show what the reader is talking about, here’s a close-up view of the chairs at Ronald Reagan’s desk, where the real-life counterparts of staffers like Whitford’s might have sat.
From another reader, on the same theme:
Another difference in the pictures of the offices that struck me was the arrangement of the chairs by the President’s desk. Every other President has chairs for advisors that are adjacent to the sides of the desk, near to the President, suggesting perhaps a closer, more collaborative relationship between the President and his advisors.
President Trump has the only configuration in which these chairs are drawn back from the President and placed such that the desk is positioned fully between the President and his advisors.
The non-Trump arrangement is actually an odd, non-customary configuration to my eyes, but in the pictures you included in your article each and every President other than Trump set up the chairs that way.
The other significant change is the number of chairs placed in front of the Resolute Desk.
The maximum in the other pictures is three, for Eisenhower, and recent presidents seem to have had two. Trump has gone to four as a standard.
Of course, presidents had more chairs brought in when meetings got larger, but that is not the point; rather, it is that as a matter of course, Trump is *performing* in front of four chairs, and other presidents needed only two chairs for their standard meetings.
One more way Trump is fouling the presidency—making performance the core, and governance only an occasional side use of the Oval.
The most striking difference between Trump's Oval Office and every single one of the others, aside from his penchant for gold, is this: The arrangement of chairs in all of the other layouts places the president among his guests while Trump's place his guests as spectators or audience members.
No one sits next to Trump. No one sits behind Trump. All chairs are in front of the desk, facing Trump. There is a single chair pictured that, while still in front of his desk, does not point directly at him, but it looks like it’s there in the event that it needs to be pulled in front of the desk.
When you proposed we try spotting the difference in Trump’s office, the first thing I noticed was not the answer you provided. Only in the picture of Trump’s new lay out were the chairs of those with whom he is meeting, on the complete other side of his desk. Others must sit across from him and be separated by a large desk. All the other oval office photos had the meeting chairs set at the sides of the desk, or even behind the desk on the same side as the president.
This is interviewing and meeting 101. In order to convey that you are on the same level as those with whom you are working or collaborating, you eliminate the large furniture (aka space) that physically blocks the interaction. It could be interpreted that Trump has asked for the desk to continue to separate him from others to preserve his position over them.
The other thing I noticed besides the flags was the placement of the chairs. Previous presidents had chairs surrounding their desk, whereas Trump has them placed in front of him and away from him. I'm not sure if that's a permanent set up, but it seems like it could be a power move in his mind to put advisors in their place, whereas other presidents were confident enough to work with their advisors and acknowledge that they needed help, and not keep them at a distance.
While I agree with you about the flags, … both the quantity and layout are perhaps telling of how different this president works. With all previous images showing a couple of chairs next to the desk, indicating maybe that previous presidents worked closely with a couple advisors, this shows four chairs in front of the desk. Could that be his penchant for lording over a court? Just found the chair layout as interesting as the flags.
And just about finally for now:
Even more telling than flags is the “body language” position of the chairs near the Resolute Desk.
Notice how all other presidents have the chairs at the sides of the desk, suggesting “conversation, discussion, sharing”; Trump on the other hand has placed the chairs on the OTHER side of the desk, signifying “Who is Boss, Greater/Lesser, Grantor, Grantee, Interviewer, Applicant”—quite the opposite.
And this behavior is directed at HIS CHOSEN staff … Imagine how he treats strangers.
Finally-for-real on the instinct that might lie behind the chairs’ placement:
I have to admit I stopped looking and continued to read after I spotted what I thought was the difference: The placement of the chairs in front of the desk—rather than beside, or none at all.
There is a sense of I am the man behind the desk, I am in charge! Compared to allowing the visitor/guest/advisor a less, what I would consider, subservient position.
“I’m the President, and you’re not!!” Which is true, and until this recent interlude, I am not sure there was a president who needed to remind everyone who he is.
His self-centredness is the root of many of his problems. A basic insecurity where he must always prove himself to be the alpha male, right down to his imaginary bone spurs.
More on the flags themselves:
It’s not just the Oval Office. Flags are popping up all over the White House. And our Embassies when The president visits. And multiples wherever he makes a public statement.
I suspect there is someone on the staff there who has been placed in charge of conspicuous flag display wherever the president appears. Would be curious to have a reporter identify and interview that person.
You write: “(I can’t tell from this photo whether the other three service banners are there as well.)”
They’re there, you can see the flags of the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard adding gravitas to this picture [with Russian visitors].
And with a slightly different spin:
Yes, Trump might have the flags to bolster his image. However, perhaps the flags are also a way of ingratiating the military that he needs to execute his (ill-formed) policies, protect him, and because he may some day ask them to perform unexpected and undesirable actions, perhaps against other americans for example.
The flags show his support and alignment with the military and to the extent it influences troops to believe they are supported and connected with the commander in chief, it may lower barriers and potential resistance in the future.
Isn’t this why leaders in the third world developing countries wear military uniforms?
But not everyone agreed with the flag- or chair-based analytical approach. Usually angry mail comes in under pseudonyms or no name at all, as in this case:
While the photos of the Oval Office decor through the years were interesting, your pathetic left-wing bias is obvious. Your attempt to make, as we say, a “mountain out of a molehill” by trying, as usual, like others in the lamestream media, to belittle the president falls way short, as evidenced in the Comments section.
In the future, please spare us your lame, uber-left tripe.
This man used his name:
I read your article about President Trump’s having military Flags in the Oval Office and did you ever cross your mind that he is showing support for our troops yeah I served militarily 101st Airborne/Air Assault Infantry and M. F. O. Peacekeeping forces I just curious did you ever serve a day in the military or did you just wimp out and ride the coattails all those who have and are serving using us to protect your rear end so you can go back to you cushy little job berating people
As did this woman:
Maybe the President included the Military Branch Flags in his office to show his support for the troops? Something your previous messiah wouldn’t due. Always looking for the bad and trying to spin the story to the left, Im a Marine back off.
And another woman with this aperçu:
At this point, I don’t think you qualify to me as a Ralph Lauren of the White House.
These flags remind all of what this country has sacrificed and who really has done that sacrificing ... its surely not you and your convoluted article that speaks to nothing but anti-trump sentiment.
The Oval never looked better Ralph.
Your article is a nothing burger, plain and simple.
Finally, that old staple, “we won, you lost”:
I have just read this little commentary you wrote concerning your appraisal of the new decorations in the oval office. What kind of nut are you to find fault with the honoring of our armed forces? To suggest that this represents an aggressive attitude and to insinuate that this is demeaning to the office is going way to far to find something to earn a few dollars with. Why not write an article on the reasons Hillary lost—and be truthful. You folks really need to get over it. You lost.
To some readers making the “honoring the troops” argument I replied: If it were strictly about supporting people in uniform, perhaps this idea would have occurred to the likes of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who himself commanded the vast Allied forces on D-Day, or the other presidents from John F. Kennedy to George H. W. Bush who fought in World War II. Yet leaders like these thought it inappropriate to cram the Oval Office with battle flags. I have no idea whether this makes any difference in these readers’ views.
I’ll consider the Oval Office topic closed at this point, unless there is yet another subtext in the photos that no one has yet brought up. Thanks for the responses, pro and con—and Godspeed to the people of Houston dealing with the flood, the police, fire fighting, ambulance teams and regular citizens helping their neighbors cope with the emergency, the local newspaper and broadcast reporters covering the news, and those around the country offering financial support. Support will be needed for a long time.
How did Andrew Anglin go from being an antiracist vegan to the alt-right’s most vicious troll and propagandist—and how might he be stopped?
On December 16, 2016, Tanya Gersh answered her phone and heard gunshots. Startled, she hung up. Gersh, a real-estate agent who lives in Whitefish, Montana, assumed it was a prank call. But the phone rang again. More gunshots. Again, she hung up. Another call. This time, she heard a man’s voice: “This is how we can keep the Holocaust alive,” he said. “We can bury you without touching you.”
When Gersh put down the phone, her hands were shaking. She was one of only about 100 Jews in Whitefish and the surrounding Flathead Valley, and she knew there were white nationalists and “sovereign citizens” in the area. But Gersh had lived in Whitefish for more than 20 years, since just after college, and had always considered the scenic ski town an idyllic place. She didn’t even have a key to her house—she’d never felt the need to lock her door. Now that sense of security was about to be shattered.
Should you drink more coffee? Should you take melatonin? Can you train yourself to need less sleep? A physician’s guide to sleep in a stressful age.
During residency, Iworked hospital shifts that could last 36 hours, without sleep, often without breaks of more than a few minutes. Even writing this now, it sounds to me like I’m bragging or laying claim to some fortitude of character. I can’t think of another type of self-injury that might be similarly lauded, except maybe binge drinking. Technically the shifts were 30 hours, the mandatory limit imposed by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, but we stayed longer because people kept getting sick. Being a doctor is supposed to be about putting other people’s needs before your own. Our job was to power through.
The shifts usually felt shorter than they were, because they were so hectic. There was always a new patient in the emergency room who needed to be admitted, or a staff member on the eighth floor (which was full of late-stage terminally ill people) who needed me to fill out a death certificate. Sleep deprivation manifested as bouts of anger and despair mixed in with some euphoria, along with other sensations I’ve not had before or since. I remember once sitting with the family of a patient in critical condition, discussing an advance directive—the terms defining what the patient would want done were his heart to stop, which seemed likely to happen at any minute. Would he want to have chest compressions, electrical shocks, a breathing tube? In the middle of this, I had to look straight down at the chart in my lap, because I was laughing. This was the least funny scenario possible. I was experiencing a physical reaction unrelated to anything I knew to be happening in my mind. There is a type of seizure, called a gelastic seizure, during which the seizing person appears to be laughing—but I don’t think that was it. I think it was plain old delirium. It was mortifying, though no one seemed to notice.
The 93-year-old kleptocrat won’t remain the ruler of Zimbabwe for long.
Despite mounting calls for his resignation, Robert Mugabe has vowed to stay on as president of Zimbabwe, further extending his nearly four-decade reign in office. The next 48 hours will be crucial, as Mugabe could be impeached when parliament reconvenes on Tuesday. The unfolding political drama in Zimbabwe remains muddled at best and follows a stunning series of events, including a de facto military coup last week and a historic mass demonstration in Harare on Saturday, in which jubilant citizens marched hand-in-hand with the same military officials who had long abused their rights with impunity.
On Sunday, the momentum towards Mugabe’s probable ouster picked up steam when the ruling ZANU-PF party voted to expel longtime stalwarts, including Mugabe and his wife Grace, who had been leader of the influential women’s league and, until last week, the president’s presumed successor. Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former vice president and Mugabe protégé, was installed as new party leader. Mnangagwa is now expected to assume the presidency and lead a potential transitional authority.
The nation wants to eradicate all invasive mammal predators by 2050. Gene-editing technology could help—or it could trigger an ecological disaster of global proportions.
The first thing that hit me about Zealandia was the noise.
I was a 15-minute drive from the center of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, but instead of the honks of horns or the bustle of passersby, all I could hear was birdsong. It came in every flavor—resonant coos, high-pitched cheeps, and alien notes that seemed to come from otherworldly instruments.
Much of New Zealand, including national parks that supposedly epitomize the concept of wilderness, has been so denuded of birds that their melodies feel like a rare gift—a fleeting thing to make note of before it disappears. But Zealandia is a unique 225-hectare urban sanctuary into which many of the nation’s most critically endangered species have been relocated. There, they are thriving—and singing. There, their tunes are not a scarce treasure, but part of the world’s background hum. There, I realized how the nation must have sounded before it was invaded by mammals.
Feminists saved the 42nd president of the United States in the 1990s. They were on the wrong side of history; is it finally time to make things right?
The most remarkable thing about the current tide of sexual assault and harassment accusations is not their number. If every woman in America started talking about the things that happen during the course of an ordinary female life, it would never end. Nor is it the power of the men involved: History instructs us that for countless men, the ability to possess women sexually is not a spoil of power; it’s the point of power. What’s remarkable is that these women are being believed.
Most of them don’t have police reports or witnesses or physical evidence. Many of them are recounting events that transpired years—sometimes decades—ago. In some cases, their accusations are validated by a vague, carefully couched quasi-admission of guilt; in others they are met with outright denial. It doesn’t matter. We believe them. Moreover, we have finally come to some kind of national consensus about the workplace; it naturally fosters a level of romance and flirtation, but the line between those impulses and the sexual predation of a boss is clear.
There’s a manifest need to lower corporate tax rates—but instead of building consensus, the GOP is pursuing a bill that’s likely to be rolled back even if it passes.
America badly needs corporate tax reform.
The United States pretends to tax corporations heavily. But those heavy tax rates are perforated by randomly generous rules such that many tax-efficient firms pay nothing at all, or even receive money back from the U.S. Treasury. The result is heavy unfairness between industries and firms, an unfairness that many economists believe systematically distorts investment decisions. U.S. productivity growth has been sluggish since the Great Recession—and actually turned negative by the beginning of 2016.
At the same time, the corporate share of the federal tax burden has dwindled over the years and decades. More and more of the cost of government now falls upon the payroll tax, a tax that weighs most heavily on low- and middle-income wage earners. These Americans are suffering stagnating incomes, very probably because of the poor productivity growth of the past half decade.
Hillary Clinton once tweeted that “every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” What about Juanita Broaddrick?
If the ground beneath your feet feels cold, it’s because hell froze over the other day. It happened at 8:02 p.m. on Monday, when The New York Times published an op-ed called “I Believe Juanita.”
Written by Michelle Goldberg, it was a piece that, 20 years ago, likely would have inflamed the readership of the paper and scandalized its editors. Reviewing the credibility of Broaddrick’s claim, Goldberg wrote that “five witnesses said she confided in them about the assault right after it happened,” an important standard in reviewing the veracity of claims of past sex crimes.
But Goldberg’s was not a single snowflake of truth; rather it was part of an avalanche of honesty in the elite press, following a seemingly innocuous tweet by the MSNBC host Chris Hayes. “As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right’s ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is,” he wrote, “it’s also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.”
From Eve to Aristotle to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a brief history of looking at half the population and assuming the worst
The picture was striking. The military airplane. The sleeping woman. The outstretched hands. The mischievous smile. The look what I’m getting away with impishness directed at the camera.
On Thursday, Leeann Tweeden, a radio host and former model, came forward with the accusation that Senator Al Franken, of Minnesota, had kissed her against her will during a 2006 USO trip to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In a story posted to the website of Los Angeles’s KABC station, Tweeden shared her experience with Franken. She also shared that photo. “I couldn’t believe it,” she wrote. “He groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep.”
I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated.
How dare anyone grab my breasts like this and think it’s funny?
I told my husband everything that happened and showed him the picture.
I wanted to shout my story to the world with a megaphone to anyone who would listen, but even as angry as I was, I was worried about the potential backlash and damage going public might have on my career as a broadcaster.
But that was then, this is now. I’m no longer afraid.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
The Netflix show, more than any other Marvel product, explores the idea that the country’s systems are fundamentally broken.
The Punisher, Netflix and Marvel’s new 13-episode drama about a superhero whose superpower is killing people with guns, is debuting in a very different environment to the one the character was conceived in. When the vigilante Frank Castle first appeared in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974, the American psyche was more preoccupied with serial killers and mob violence than with mass shooters. Punisher, a former Marine Corps sniper, turned the merciless tactics of organized criminals against them, displaying no qualms about executing gangsters. He employed what amounted to an arsenal of military-grade weapons. His accoutrements were guns, guns, and more guns.
In 2017, a dizzying number of disturbed gunmen have given the imagery and mythology of Punisher an even darker resonance. In October, a mass shooting in Las Vegas left 58 people dead, excluding the perpetrator. A month later, a 26-year-old former member of the U.S. Air Force killed 26 people in a church in Texas. It’s a discomfiting news landscape in which to absorb The Punisher, whose opening credits caress silhouetted weaponry as brazenly as James Bond title sequences undulate around women’s bodies.