Reporter's Notebook

The editorial and business office of the Quoddy Tides newspaper, in downtown Eastport, Maine
The editorial and business office of the Quoddy Tides newspaper, in downtown Eastport, Maine James Fallows

This is another road report on the state of local journalism, which is more and more important, and more and more imperiled.

It is important because so much of the future of American economic, cultural, and civic life is now being devised and determined at the local or state level. Educational innovation, promotion of new industries and creation of fairer opportunities, absorption of new arrivals (in growing communities) and retaining existing talent (in shrinking ones), reform of policing and prison practices, equitable housing and transportation policies, offsets to addiction and homelessness and other widespread problems, environmental sustainability—these and just about every other issue you can think of are the subjects of countless simultaneous experiments going on across the country. Voters, residents, and taxpayers need to know what is happening (or not), and what is working (or not), in their school systems, and their city councils, and their state capitals.

It is imperiled for obvious reasons. What has happened to media revenues in general has happened worst, fastest, and hardest to local publications, newspapers most of all.

This is part of the reason Deb Fallows and I have been reporting on local-journalism innovations (and successes) we’ve seen, such as the Report for America initiative I mentioned in June, and the business model behind the last family-owned daily in Mississippi, The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus (and, long before that, the former alt-weekly that has become a leading statewide news source in Vermont, Seven Days, of Burlington).

No one of these models or examples will necessarily apply in other places or circumstances. But any illustration of success is worth noticing, for tips.


This brings us to The Quoddy Tides, the twice-monthly, family-owned and -run newspaper that has a print circulation several times larger than the population of the city where it is based.

The home city is Eastport, Maine, whose library Deb wrote about recently, and which we described in our book, Our Towns. In its heyday as a sardine-canning capital, Eastport had a population of more than 5,000. Now the canneries are gone, and the year-round population is about 1,300, and nearly everyone in town holds a combination of jobs—lobster fishing, seasonal tourist businesses, work at the commercial port or in forestry, small crafts or art studios—to make ends meet. But in this setting, The Quoddy Tides has a paid print circulation of just less than 5,000, and now has more than 50 years of continuous operation. Its editorial and business office is in a white clapboard structure that at various times was a fishing-company office and then a Christian Science church, along the bay front in Eastport’s small but architecturally distinguished downtown. It is run on a shoestring, but it has some 20 contributors and correspondents in the region, and it is full of both articles and ads, and it matters in its community.

Eastport’s downtown, from its pier. The Quoddy Tides office is the small white building to the right. (James Fallows)

Part of The QT’s circulation secret is similar to that of Seven Days, in Vermont: It is aimed at an audience, and market, beyond its immediate hometown base. In addition to news of Eastport, The QT covers that of other down-east Maine towns such as Lubec, Machias, and Calais (pronounced like callous), and adjoining maritime islands and towns in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. It also has a substantial mail circulation, reaching subscribers in 49 states who are originally from the area, or have visited, or feel some interest or connection to it. (South Dakota is the outlier. People of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, c’mon!)

Also, like The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi, the paper’s family ownership means that it can spend its modest resources as it chooses. It is not under external-ownership pressure to meet regular profitability targets, which has sent so many small papers into cycles of cutback and decline.

But when I spoke with the husband-and-wife couple who run the paper, Edward French and Lora Whelan, they emphasized that it was the kind of journalism they provide that has allowed them to survive.


The Quoddy Tides—named for the Passamaquoddy Bay on which Eastport sits, which feeds into the Bay of Fundy—was founded by Edward’s mother, Winifred, in 1968. She and her husband, Rowland, a doctor, had moved to Eastport from Arizona in the early 1950s, and stayed there to raise their family. (“My mother was looking for someplace not quite as hot,” Edward told me in The QT’s office earlier this month. “Coastal Maine qualified.”) Rowland became a leading local doctor, with a clinic now named in his honor. One of Edward’s brothers, Hugh, also lives now in Eastport, where with his wife, Kristin McKinlay, he runs a museum and arts organization called the Tides Institute.

In the late 1960s, as the family’s children were growing, Winifred decided that the community needed a newspaper. A previous one, from the town’s sardine-canning days, had gone out of business in the 1950s. “She had no newspaper experience,” Lora said of her mother-in-law. “But she thought these communities really needed a voice. So she talked to other small newspapers and had correspondence with people all around the country about how she should set this up.” After a year of research, she launched the paper in 1968.

Lora Whelan at work (Courtesy of Lora Whelan)

Edward, then elementary-school age, grew up helping address papers for mail subscribers, and with the page layout. In those days, a fishing boat took article text across the water to a layout shop in Deer Island, Canada, and then another boat would carry the pasted-up pages back to the U.S. for printing.

Edward French at the Quoddy Tides office (Leslie Bowman / the Working Waterfront)

Then and now, the striking characteristic of the paper is its density of local news. The most recent issue, when we visited, was 40 pages long, with many dozens of purely local, information-packed news stories.

For instance, the front page (at right) had five local stories: about the Passamaquoddy Tribal Council’s effort to defend water rights; about limits on sea-urchin fishing (a quickly growing market, mainly for export to Asia); about the impact of new tax preferences, for land conservation, on local tax revenues; a crime story; and one about an academic-freedom dispute at the local Maritime College of Forest Technology. Plus, a picture of a kayaker viewing a Minke whale—of which we saw large numbers in the bay.

The Quoddy Tides’ front page of the August 9, 2019, edition (James Fallows)

In the rest of the paper you have: high-school sports. Commercial shipping schedules and tide tables. Gardening and cooking tips. Religious news. Birth and death notices. Puzzles. Local city-council roundups. A long editorial and letters-to-editors section. Everything.

“I think it’s important for newspapers not to keep cutting,” Edward told me at The QT’s office. “If you keep cutting, there’s less and less reason for people to buy the paper. If you want to keep a healthy circulation, you have to make the investment in reporters and providing the news that people can’t find anywhere else.” If there is a “secret” of the paper’s success, he said, it is “that you’re providing information that people can’t find any other place.”

All notes on "Eastport, Maine" >
Donald Trump
Carlos Barria / Reuters

Whatever is wrong with Donald Trump is getting worse. A week ago, it seemed noteworthy that he was canceling a long-planned state visit because an allied government didn’t want to let him “buy Greenland.”

Now: proposals to stop hurricanes with nuclear bombs; turning a G-7 news conference into a late-night cable infomercial for Trump’s own badly struggling golf resort;  “imaginary-friend” discussions with Chinese leaders that the Chinese say never occurred; orders that his officials “build the wall!” with a promise to pardon them for any laws they break in the process; and general megalomania and craziness.

Last week I argued (in “If Trump Were an Airline Pilot”) that if Trump occupied any other important position in public life, responsible figures would already have removed him from the controls. In this case the “responsible figures” are the Vichy Republicans who control the U.S. Senate, which is why nothing has happened to rein Trump in. Not one of these senators will stand up to Trump, even as he is melting down.

A few days ago, readers with military, corporate, and other backgrounds responded to the proposition that a person like Trump would already have been screened out by corporate, military, medical, or other professional systems. Here’s another round in response to that.


CEOs are worse than you think: In the previous post I quoted a reader who said that a man like Trump was par for the course in big public corporations. (“Many American CEOs are as incompetent as Trump.”) I said, in response, that it would be good to have a few more examples—apart, say, from Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, who was able to con much of the financial and scientific world for a long time.

This reader wrote back to say: You want examples? I’ve got examples! Here is an abridged version of his reply:

I read your challenge regarding examples of CEOs who have destroyed the company and were not fired by the board for whatever reason in the face of incompetence. First, of course, scholarship:

1. Book that discusses this very same phenomenon, as CEOs are chosen for their 'charisma' vs. experience and competence. Searching for a Corporate Savior, The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs  (Rakesh Khurana, Princeton, 2002). In this book there is a discussion about the parameters that boards tend to use for choosing CEOs in the US. I think you'll find some of your examples there.

2. Examples of incompetent CEOs who destroyed or helped destroy their companies after being put on the job. Don't take my word for it, try this list of “15 Worst CEOs in American History.” The criteria of the list:

“Those selected for the list fall into one of two simple categories - those who ruined the companies completely while they served as sitting CEOs and those who did severe damage from which their firms could never possibly recover.”...

3. Want more current examples. Sure: Take a look at “Worst CEOs of 2018.” ...


We can talk about incompetence in another sense: Are they building a company that works for the world at large, or are they building a company to feed their egos?

You may say, it doesn't matter if they do, what matters is the result. However, I think you'll find that, if we begin to discuss the ethics of owning and managing a business, you quickly get to the 'responsibility' moment, where your responsibility is to your employees, your environment, your country, and your shareholders. In that order.

The idea that shareholders must always come first has always been ridiculous and only a small mind and small heart could accept that (cue the usual Republican assessments - take your examples from people like Mitch McConnell, a man who does not understand what made the US great and only cares about getting what he wants or what he thinks he wanted when he was 30 years younger.) Take your example as Bezos. Once you have made more money than God, what's the point of not paying your employees a living wage?...

Hope you are not counting on the genius of American Business leadership to save the country from its own present course.

To reassure the reader on the final point, I’m not looking for a CEO savior. (The main theme of the recent work that I’ve been doing with my wife, Deb Fallows, is that communities need to be their own saviors.) My point was simply: Corporate oversight, however flawed, has seemed to be more effective than what we’re getting at the moment out of the U.S. Senate.

Which leads me to …


Actually, CEOs are way better than you think! A reader whom I’ve known for a long time, and whose work involves corporate governance and CEO-search processes, agrees with the original point, and disagrees with the reader above.

My friend writes:

I’d like to offer a response to the response you received [from the reader quoted above] regarding CEO’s of public companies and the Board’s judgement on their fitness to serve (“The board at a public company would have replaced him outright or arranged a discreet shift out of power.”)...

The responder’s comments are contrary to my personal experience.  For more two decades I was a Senior Partner and the Co-Leader of the [particular business area] Practice at one of the top four international retained executive search firms. My search practice was exclusively focused on C-level executive positions, not infrequently searches for CEO replacement.  In a majority of my executive searches, my client was the Board of Directors.

While the typical CEO search engagement was initiated to replace the planned retirement, often a year or more in advance, I can think of at least half a dozen searches to replace CEOs whose behavior was not only harmful to the business interests of the enterprise, but also offensive to the values of the company.

These were cases of Trump-like behavior.  This could be a painful process for the Board, particularly when the CEO was also a Founder who had overseen the selection of Board Directors over the course of many years.

I can think of four examples of CEO behavior so egregious that the Board recognized its fiduciary duty to shareholders to dismiss and the replace the CEO.  While I won’t name the companies involved, I will say that all were Fortune 100 corporations, two investor-owned systems, a specialty manufacturer, and one of the largest [insurance-related firms].  These executive searches were conducted in strictest confidence, and only the Board was aware that the CEO was to be replaced.  In contrast to your respondent’s characterization of “the medieval level at which corporate management is done,” it was clear to me and my Search Firm that in these instances the Boards acted firmly, ethically, and in the interest not only of shareholders but also of the corporation’s management and employees.


I will acknowledge that there has been a growing tendency for CEOs to recruit compliant Board Directors and undermine their independence, but I will also observe that based on many years’ experience working very closely with many of the most senior healthcare executives that the best CEOs seek strong and independent Directors on their corporate Boards.  The best CEOs of the most successful large public companies use their Directors as an extension and enhancement of management talent, and they defer to their Directors when making certain critical decisions regarding the values of the enterprise and its strategic direction.

Again, in my experience, an effective Board would not long tolerate capricious leadership, and certainly would not hesitate to act to dismiss a CEO whose personal behavior violated ethical standards, even if the enterprise was doing well.

One final note: your respondent asserts, “Many American CEOs are as incompetent as Trump.”  I demur.  With the exception of the occasional Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos), Ken Lay (Enron), or Rick Scott (Columbia HCA) – essentially Founders as well as CEOs – my personal experience and close acquaintance with a fair number of top tier executives and Board Directors is that it takes exceptional intelligence, leadership talent, and steady judgement to lead an organization as complex as a Fortune 100 corporation.  

All notes on "Trump Nation" >
The Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine
The Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art

Andrew Carnegie was the force of Gilded Age philanthropy behind the building of public libraries. Along with other recognizable names who made their fortune in the late 1800s and early 1900s—Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon, Morgan, Stanford, Harriman, Heinz—Carnegie’s influence endures today largely because of the way he gave away the vast fortune he amassed.

For about 35 years beginning in 1883, Carnegie donated money from his steelmaking empire (which became U.S. Steel) to build nearly 1,700 libraries around the country and another 800 around other parts of the world. He was careful about his “formula” for agreeing to construct the commanding, elegant buildings, a formula whose elements remain fundamental in the basic operations and democratic spirit of public libraries today. The libraries were required, among other things, to support staff and maintenance, to gather at least some of their funding from public sources, and to be open and free to the public to use.

It has been stunning to see the physical and spiritual legacy of Carnegie libraries—large and small—as we have visited more than 50 towns around the country for our Our Towns reporting project. It has been inspiring to bear witness to how libraries have evolved from the simple idea of serving the wants and needs of the public to becoming crucial, essential public institutions of communities in this modern era.

Around the turn of the 20th century in Columbus, Ohio, an audacious city librarian named John Pugh hopped the train for New York to knock on Carnegie’s door, and—appealing to their shared Celtic background— charmed Carnegie into donating $200,000 for the construction of the imposing granite and marble main library in downtown Columbus. Today the building has been newly renovated and expanded, retaining its original main building and entry, where the words OPEN TO ALL are carved in granite over the door. From the library’s main reading room, you can look out the two-story glass windows onto the seven acres of topiary park with more than 200 different types of trees.

The Carnegie Center for the Arts in Dodge City, Kansas (Courtesy of the Carnegie Center for the Arts)

In Dodge City, Kansas, a small but distinguished group of residents, inspired by the town’s women’s club, appealed to Carnegie in 1905 for support to build their public library, as he had previously done for five other towns in Kansas. He gave them $7,500, and they agreed to ante 10 percent of that sum annually to maintain it. The town’s population grew and eventually outgrew the small library. Today it is home to the Carnegie Center for the Arts.

All notes on "Eastport, Maine" >
Donald Trump after arriving in France this weekend
Donald Trump after arriving in France this weekend Reuters

Three days ago I argued that if Donald Trump were in any consequential job other than the one he now occupies—surgeon, military commander, head of a private organization or public company, airline pilot—he would already have been removed.  A sampling of reader response:

The military would have responded. One reader writes:

I am retired military officer and there IS a significant part of his behavior that should generate a change of command without a parade.

The UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] is very clear about anyone in the chain of command influencing ongoing military law procedures. If ANY military officer would have done what this man did concerning Eddie Gallagher they would have been removed from their position without hesitation. [JF note: Gallagher was the Navy SEAL who was tried for murder, on allegations he stabbed a captive prisoner to death. After he was acquitted, Trump publicly took credit for helping get him off. More here.]

My God, what have we done.


Also, school systems. Another reader adds:

He would be unemployable in every school district in America.

We elected a president who couldn’t even be a substitute teacher.


But maybe not in corporations? From another reader:

In your piece from 22 August, you mentioned:

“The board at a public company would have replaced him outright or arranged a discreet shift out of power. (Of course, he would never have gotten this far in a large public corporation.)”

I respectfully disagree. One thing that is almost never discussed in the US is the medieval level at which corporate management is done. It is a fiefdom where the CEO is the chosen one to do as he wishes for as long as he can.

Trump would have risen to the top of many a corporation looking for a 'savior' (isn't that what we call the CEOs who will fix a company in trouble?)

Many American CEOs are as incompetent as Trump. They do a better job of hiding it, and they make sure that their successors get blamed for their messes.

I’ll accept the reader’s argument that some corporate CEOs may be no more knowledgeable or competent than Trump—though I’d like to hear a specific example. (Maybe Elizabeth Holmes, of Theranos? On the other hand, even today’s flawed corporate-governance system eventually caught up with her.)

I disagree that the board of a public corporation would have indefinitely put up with what the world has recently seen from such a leader, in the way that the GOP majority in the Senate—the functional equivalent of a corporation’s board—puts up with Trump.


The new ‘Flight 93’ A reader refers to the popular right-wing concept that the 2016 presidential election was a civic version of United Flight 93, from September 11, 2001. On that flight, passengers recognized that the plane had been taken over by terrorists, and they stormed the cockpit to bring the plane crashing to the ground rather than allowing it to become a flying bomb detonated in Washington.

The idea that 2016 was the “Flight 93 Election” became shorthand for a “by any means necessary!” approach to Donald Trump: Yeah, he has his problems (just like crashing a plane into the ground has its problems), but the alternative is even worse.

The reader writes:

Whether purposely or not, your piece echoes and counterweights the pernicious metaphor of The Flight 93 Election by Micheal Anton.

It was helpful to be reminded that most institutions have procedures in place for removal of a presiding officer who is unfit for duty.  


Speaking of the military, maybe ‘The Caine Mutiny’ is not the right model. In my post I likened Donald Trump’s current bearing to that of Philip Queeg, in Herman Wouk’s famed 1950s novel The Caine Mutiny and the subsequent movie.

Several readers wrote to note a complication with that comparison. In specific, while many people agreed with the similarities between Trump’s behavior and Queeg’s, several pointed out that the moral Herman Wouk seemed to draw from his story worked against the point I was trying to make.

Here’s a sample letter. For those not familiar with the book or all the characters mentioned, the central point is that Wouk ended the book being more sympathetic to his manifestly deranged main character, Captain Queeg, and critical of those who removed him from command. The reader says:

I have a quibble with your literary analysis.

My Dad gave me a tattered copy of The Caine Mutiny when I was in eight grade. It’s a great coming of age story. As I have become a graying and nondescript adult, as Willie Keith [one of the complicated protagonists] is described in the final pages, I appreciate Keith’s story more and more.

But it seems to me that at the end of the book, the narrative itself and important characters within it (not just Keith but Greenwald and even Keggs) conclude that Queeg should NOT have been relieved.

Greenwald, from a position of moral authority, credits Queeg with doing what was necessary to protect the country from fascism while the rest of them trained up for war, and regrets what he sees as his own (necessary) role in Queeg’s humiliation. Keith accepts and agrees with the official Navy reprimand he receives for his role in the relief.

Keggs, now a captain himself, wonders how they got off the hook. The consensus opinion at the end of the book is that Keefer (and of course the fascists) were the true villains, and that the Navy that put Queeg in command of a DMS [destroyer mine sweeper] generally knows what it’s doing.

I loved everything else about the article. But let’s not let Trump off the hook the way Herman Wouk let Queeg off the hook.

Several other readers suggested a better (if less famous) comparison: the 1995 movie Crimson Tide, set aboard a nuclear-missile submarine, in which an executive officer played by Denzel Washington stands up to a captain played by Gene Hackman and finally (and correctly) relieves him of command.


Does naming a problem matter? I explained in my original post why I had long resisted “medicalizing” Trump’s aberrant behavior — that is, linking his excesses to some possible underlying disorder, rather than just noting them on their own. A mental-health professional writes to disagree:

I have to disagree on your belief that it wouldn't matter to anyone what his diagnosis is.

We have a unique situation here in which his most likely diagnosis would distress many if they truly understood what the term actually means and how we can draw a reasonable conclusion that we know his provisional diagnosis without ever seeing him.

As a Psychiatric Social Worker who has worked in forensic mental health, I know that it is well established that at least 1% of the population does not develop a conscience. They don't get angry, or stop caring, they simply lack to capacity to feel guilt, empathy, or grief. In many cases, this appears tied to brain abnormalities….

There are different terms and models for assessing such a person. Malignant Narcissism has been openly mentioned. Narcissistic Sociopath is common in pop culture. I prefer the term Psychopathy which is the model I am most familiar.

By definition, such a person is unfit for office (even if they lack the traits of the small subsection who become serial killers). I have to believe that the majority of the Republicans in Congress would care if they understood they are enabling a psychopath and the danger that represents to our country.

As a Social Worker, I am aware there are times when community safety and our duty to humankind outweigh the so-called
"Goldwater Rule" [JF note: this is the informal bar on commenting on people a mental-health professional has not examined personally]. This is spelled out in our NASW Code of Ethics and are reasons for the Tarasoff ruling and the laws on reporting suspected child abuse. [JF note: the Tarasoff case involved professionals’ responsibility to warn people who might be victims of a mentally ill patient’s behavior].

Imagine a professional who has the special training and has spent the time familiarizing themselves with the data on Trump trying to defend their decision to stay silent ten years from now. "Well, I knew that Trump might be a Psychopath, but you know, professional ethics."…

FBI agents are trained in the many ways such a person gives themselves away, but even a well-educated lay person can recognize that we have a profoundly mental disturbed man in the White House.


More on why a diagnosis matters. From another reader:

One of the characteristics of NPD [narcissistic personality disorder, whose list of symptoms closely resembles daily reports from the Trump White House] is that when meeting obstructions to the patient's narcissism, there is a progression from attempting to charm, to bullying, to outright paranoia; as you note, we re seeing that progression.

I agree the medicalizing our observations has no particular effect.  Sufficient to say that our President is decompensating, getting crazier and crazier.


We thought democracy would spare us. From another reader:

Toward the end of today's piece you write:

"There are two exceptions. One is a purely family-run business, like the firm in which Trump spent his entire previous career. And the other is the U.S. presidency, where he will remain, despite more and more-manifest Queeg-like  unfitness, as long as the GOP Senate stands with him."

I can't help but think of the long history of hereditary monarchs and Popes who were not only utterly unfit to rule, but were unfit in ways that were clearly visible to everybody around them. Some of them were mere toddlers when they acceded to the throne.

I think that in the US, after tossing out one of those monarchs, we've convinced ourselves that our system just wouldn't allow this to happen. We love democracy so much that we can't conceive of the idea that a quarter of our country would willingly make the effort to walk into a polling booth and sign over power to someone like this, and that enough of the rest of us would not see it as such a dire emergency that they wouldn't bother to vote against him.

It feels like a step backwards not just for the Presidency (which has seen its fair share of xenophobic, incompetent, and corrupt occupants), but for a world in general that seemed like it had moved on from an obviously flawed method of entrusting people with power.


Thanks to the readers, and a final point I can’t make often enough.

If a renegade CEO were jeopardizing a public corporation’s future, the board of directors would finally act.

If a renegade pilot threatened the safety of passengers, an airline’s management — or the regulators from the FAA — would feel legally obliged to act.

Same for a renegade doctor, or teacher, or most other officials. The scandal of some police agencies, and of some Catholic (and other) hierarchies, is their failure to act as the evidence mounted up.

The body that could act in the public interest in this case is the U.S. Senate. As explained in the original piece, any effort to rein in Trump, or to remove him from command, finally rests on support from the 45 men and 8 women who make up the current Republican majority in the Senate. Unlike the other 330 million or so Americans, those 53 individuals — the people whose names are listed here —  could do something directly. And they won’t.

All notes on "Trump Nation" >
Donald Trump
Tasos Katopodis / Reuters

Through the 2016 campaign, I posted a series called “Trump Time Capsule” in this space. The idea was to record, in real time, what was known about Donald Trump’s fitness for office—and to do so not when people were looking back on our era but while the Republican Party was deciding whether to line up behind him and voters were preparing to make their choice.

The series reached 152 installments by election day. I argued that even then there was no doubt of Trump’s mental, emotional, civic, and ethical unfitness for national leadership. If you’re hazy on the details, the series is (once again) here.

That background has equipped me to view Trump’s performance in office as consistently shocking but rarely surprising. He lied on the campaign trail, and he lies in office. He insulted women, minorities, “the other” as a candidate, and he does it as a president. He led “lock her up!” cheers at the Republican National Convention and he smiles at “send them back!” cheers now. He did not know how the “nuclear triad” worked then, and he does not know how tariffs work now. He flared at perceived personal slights when they came from Senator John McCain, and he does so when they come from the Prime Minister of Denmark. He is who he was.

The Atlantic editorial staff, in a project I played no part in, reached a similar conclusion. Its editorial urging a vote against Trump was obviously written before the election but stands up well three years later:

He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters—the statesmen and thinkers of the ballot box—should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent


The one thing I avoided in that Time Capsule series was “medicalizing” Trump’s personality and behavior. That is, moving from description of his behavior to speculation about its cause. Was Trump’s abysmal ignorance—“Most people don’t know President Lincoln was a Republican!”—a sign of dementia, or of some other cognitive decline? Or was it just more evidence that he had never read a book? Was his braggadocio and self-centeredness a textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder? (Whose symptoms include “an exaggerated sense of self-importance” and “a sense of entitlement and require[s] constant, excessive admiration.”) Or just that he is an entitled jerk? On these and other points I didn’t, and don’t, know.

Like many people in the journalistic world, I received a steady stream of mail from mental-health professionals arguing for the “medicalized” approach. Several times I mentioned the parallel between Trump’s behavior and the check-list symptoms of narcissism. But I steered away from “this man is sick”—naming the cause rather than listing the signs—for two reasons.

The minor reason was the medical-world taboo against public speculation about people a doctor had not examined personally. There is a Catch-22 circularity to this stricture (which dates to the Goldwater-LBJ race in 1964). Doctors who have not treated a patient can’t say anything about the patient’s condition, because that would be “irresponsible”—but neither can doctors who have, because they’d be violating confidences.

Also, a flat ban on at-a-distance diagnosis doesn’t really meet the common-sense test. Medical professionals have spent decades observing symptoms, syndromes, and more-or-less probable explanations for behavior. We take it for granted that an ex-quarterback like Tony Romo can look at an offensive lineup just before the snap and say, “This is going to be a screen pass.” But it’s considered a wild overstep for a doctor or therapist to reach conclusions based on hundreds of hours of exposure to Trump on TV.

My dad was a small-town internist and diagnostician. Back in the 1990s he saw someone I knew, on a TV interview show, and he called me to say: “I think your friend has [a neurological disease]. He should have it checked out, if he hasn’t already.” It was because my dad had seen a certain pattern—of expression, and movement, and facial detail—so many times in the past, that he saw familiar signs, and knew from experience what the cause usually was. (He was right in this case.) Similarly, he could walk down the street, or through an airline terminal, and tell by people’s gait or breathing patterns who needed to have knee or hip surgery, who had just had that surgery, who was starting to have heart problems, et cetera. (I avoided asking him what he was observing about me.)

Recognizing patterns is the heart of most professional skills, and mental health professionals usually know less about an individual patient than all of us now know about Donald Trump. And on that basis, Dr. Bandy Lee of Yale and others associated with the World Mental Health Coalition have been sounding the alarm about Trump’s mental state (including with a special analysis of the Mueller report). Another organization of mental health professionals is the “Duty to Warn” movement.

But the diagnosis-at-a-distance issue wasn’t the real reason I avoided “medicalization.” The main reason I didn’t go down this road was my assessment that it wouldn’t make a difference. People who opposed Donald Trump already opposed him, and didn’t need some medical hypothesis to dislike his behavior. And people who supported him had already shown that they would continue to swallow anything, from “Grab ‘em by … ”  to “I like people who weren’t captured.” The Vichy Republicans of the campaign dutifully lined up behind the man they had denounced during the primaries, and the Republicans of the Senate have followed in that tradition.


But now we’ve had something we didn’t see so clearly during the campaign. These are episodes of what would be called outright lunacy, if they occurred in any other setting: An actually consequential rift with a small but important NATO ally, arising from the idea that the U.S. would “buy Greenland.” Trump’s self-description as “the Chosen One,” and his embrace of a supporter’s description of him as the “second coming of God” and the “King of Israel.” His logorrhea, drift, and fantastical claims in public rallies, and his flashes of belligerence at the slightest challenge in question sessions on the White House lawn. His utter lack of affect or empathy when personally meeting the most recent shooting victims, in Dayton and El Paso. His reduction of any event, whatsoever, into what people are saying about him.

Obviously I have no standing to say what medical pattern we are seeing, and where exactly it might lead. But just from life I know this:

  • If an airline learned that a pilot was talking publicly about being “the Chosen One” or “the King of Israel” (or Scotland or whatever), the airline would be looking carefully into whether this person should be in the cockpit.
  • If a hospital had a senior surgeon behaving as Trump now does, other doctors and nurses would be talking with administrators and lawyers before giving that surgeon the scalpel again.
  • If a public company knew that a CEO was making costly strategic decisions on personal impulse or from personal vanity or slight, and was doing so more and more frequently, the board would be starting to act. (See: Uber, management history of.)
  • If a university, museum, or other public institution had a leader who routinely insulted large parts of its constituency—racial or religious minorities, immigrants or international allies, women—the board would be starting to act.
  • If the U.S. Navy knew that one of its commanders was routinely lying about important operational details, plus lashing out under criticism, plus talking in “Chosen One” terms, the Navy would not want that person in charge of, say, a nuclear-missile submarine. (See: The Queeg saga in The Caine Mutiny, which would make ideal late-summer reading or viewing for members of the White House staff.)

Yet now such a  person is in charge not of one nuclear-missile submarine but all of them—and the bombers and ICBMs, and diplomatic military agreements, and the countless other ramifications of executive power.

If Donald Trump were in virtually any other position of responsibility, action would already be under way to remove him from that role. The board at a public company would have replaced him outright or arranged a discreet shift out of power. (Of course, he would never have gotten this far in a large public corporation.) The chain-of-command in the Navy or at an airline or in the hospital would at least call a time-out, and check his fitness, before putting him back on the bridge, or in the cockpit, or in the operating room. (Of course, he would never have gotten this far as a military officer, or a pilot, or a doctor.)

There are two exceptions. One is a purely family-run business, like the firm in which Trump spent his entire previous career. And the other is the U.S. presidency, where he will remain, despite more and more-manifest Queeg-like  unfitness, as long as the GOP Senate stands with him.

(Why the Senate? Because the two constitutional means for removing a president, impeachment and the 25th Amendment, both ultimately require two thirds support from the Senate. Under the 25th Amendment, a majority of the Cabinet can remove a president—but if the president disagrees, he can retain the office unless two thirds of both the House and Senate vote against him, an even tougher standard than with impeachment. Once again it all comes back to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.)

Donald Trump is who we knew him to be. But now he’s worse. The GOP Senate continues to show us what it is.

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The view from our plane this week, headed to Maine
The view from our plane this week, headed to Maine Deborah Fallows

We were flying away from Washington D.C. again, leaving the Sturm und Drang of our hometown in early August for a point nearly as far east on the U.S. map as one can get. It is “Down East,” in the vernacular of Maine, and the town of Eastport, where residents say the sun first rises over the United States, as does the moon, which gets far too little attention.

James Fallows, banking the Steel Edition Cirrus SR-22 en route to Eastport (Deborah Fallows)

In Eastport, it is difficult to rise before the fishermen do; they are often out by dawn, returning with a catch before most of us see the sun, and then they head to the local Waco Diner, which is ready for them with bacon and coffee.

Close in to shore this morning, seagulls cry back and forth to each other. Winches lower lobster traps onto boats for setting in the bay. A few townspeople arrive at the new town pier in pickups stocked with their fishing gear. They cast their lines some six feet down from the pier to the water at high tide, and as much as 25 at low tide. The tidal difference is greatest when the moon is full, as it is now. I watched the fishermen catching mackerel, smelt, and herring for their dinner tables.

The port’s pilot boat glides silently offshore; I know a big ship is scheduled to arrive at the port this week, maybe like the Industrial Ruby, which came and went last week, loaded up with wood pulp for China. It’s a Dutch-built and -owned ship, registered in Liberia, with Russian and Ukrainian officers and a Filipino crew.

Looking at the piers of Eastport (Deborah Fallows)

Many elements in Eastport help you touch the whole world, in a hugely romantic way rather than the fearing and dark way in which many elements in our hometown touch the world. Ships heading for China; evening flights departing the east coast for early arrivals in London or maybe Paris, their lights flickering and their huge jet engines barely whispering in our ears.

Canada is right across the water; from Eastport, you see the island of Campobello, where Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt spent summers with their family. Within a few days in August of 1921, FDR contracted a sudden series of symptoms that were finally diagnosed as polio. Eventually, he was ferried across the water to Eastport, and taken by train to New York. His dark-red house with the dark-green roof, surprisingly comfortably rambling, still stands at the top of lawns that slope down to the water. His small sailboat sits dry on the lawn. The trains have long since gone away.

Downtown Eastport this week, from its pier (James Fallows)

On land, workers are hammering at Eastport’s 1887 Masonic Block, owned by the Tides Institute, replacing the crumbling wood beams with monstrous steel ones to keep the building standing for two centuries more, at least. It’s worth the trouble to be sure that the west side of Water Street remains solid with its row of red brick buildings.

New steel beams going into the Masonic Block (Deborah Fallows)

Just uphill is the Peavey Memorial Library, which desperately needs some attention like the Masonic Block is getting so that more of Peavey’s bricks don’t crumble. Like many other public libraries, they are looking every which way to find the funds for this. There was a music festival behind the library all weekend, free but for library donations. There’s a thermometer drawn on a poster out front marking donations rising like degrees, and according to the Quoddy Tides, Eastport’s biweekly paper, a grant writer from Bangor, Maine, has been hired to seek money from outside Eastport.

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The science building at Central Oregon Community College, in Bend, Oregon
The science building at Central Oregon Community College, in Bend, Oregon James Fallows / The Atlantic

Last week I reported on a conference of community-college leaders that Deb Fallows and I attended in Michigan, and about some of the reasons we’ve come to believe that community colleges are so important to America’s economic and civic future.

Readers weighed in with their experiences and views. First, from a reader in Texas:

Unless I missed it, I think you missed one of the additional key assets of community college, at least here in my state. It is a potential GATEWAY.

Neither of our kids were well positioned for college I am ashamed to admit. Our son thankfully went onto [a local community college] from high school graduation. His sister went onto a state college in Texas from high school.

Our son struggled for a few years to gain his academic footing and direction. Our daughter outgrew her original college and moved onto [a state university in Texas], and then to graduation at [another well-known university].

Our son eventually went from community college to graduate from a state university, Cum Laude. None of this would have happened were it not for Texas’s policy on easy transition between community college and state college/university educational institutions once you are in the system and meeting academic standards. And, I would add, automatic acceptance of the top 10% of high school graduating classes.

I have no idea how commonplace this arrangement is across the country, but I have to applaud Texas for this educational feature. Not everybody is ready at HS graduation for a university environment. That should not limit their life’s potential. I hope other states do the same.

I agree with the reader that “portability” of credits through different levels of a public higher-ed system is an important opportunity-enhancing feature. Here’s a detailed example of how one state, California, has tried to ease the process: It has a site called assist.org, which lets students see which credits are transferable from one California public higher-ed institution to another, under which set of rules. (For instance: The site would let you specify that you’d attended San Bernardino Valley College and were interested in the California State University at San Bernardino or the University of California at Riverside. It would then list which credits for which specific courses could be transferred.)

The reader in Texas adds:

Failure at a 4 year university is indelible in GPA/class rank. I still remember the introductory meeting and the “look to the left, look to the right” speech when I started in the 1960s at [a technology university in the Northeast]. Seemed like we had slipped down to Quantico when I walked between meetings. It also appeared to be a badge of honor of sorts for the school.

Today many of these schools still fail about half the entering freshmen. That is not a positive performance metric. As I stated, our son initially floundered some at community college. That was erased when he transferred to the state university.

I think there is in many places a perception that this is a lower economic class issue. Not true in our family. Worth highlighting.


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The campus of Dodge City Community College, in western Kansas
The campus of Dodge City Community College, in western Kansas James Fallows / The Atlantic

America is in the middle of another news emergency, about crises that are genuinely important. But meanwhile, other aspects of public and private life grind on, and because they will matter so much in the long run, they deserve more attention than the permanent-emergency news culture usually allows for. Like many other entries in this series, today’s is an intentionally off-news item about some of these developments that will help determine the news of the future.

At the moment I have in mind two institutions that are rarely in the headlines but deserve to be featured in American discussions of prospects for a better economic and civic future.

One is, of course, America’s network of libraries, as Deb Fallows has discussed over the years. She wrote about them in the print magazine, in our book Our Towns, and in recent posts like this from Brownsville, Texas, and this from New York.

The other is the constellation of 1,000-plus public community colleges across the country. Three years ago in the magazine I made the case that a reliable sign of civic progress was whether a city took its community college seriously:

Not every city can have a research university. Any ambitious one can have a community college.

Just about every world-historical trend is pushing the United States (and other countries) toward a less equal, more polarized existence: labor-replacing technology, globalized trade, self-segregated residential-housing patterns, the American practice of unequal district-based funding for public schools.

Community colleges are the main exception, potentially offering a connection to high-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage …

In travels since then, Deb and I have seen more examples of community colleges acting as anchors for a city or region—for instance, with the “Communiversity” that has made such a difference in eastern Mississippi, or the innovative Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, Virginia. (This IALR in Danville is neither a normal research university nor a community college but approximates some functions of each, and works with nearby two- and four-year institutions.) Based on what we’ve seen, I would argue that while every branch of American education is always “important,” from preschool and K–12 to the most intense research universities, community colleges really are the crucial institutions of this economic and political moment. That is because:

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Murals of teenagers on the wall of the teen space in the Brownsville Public Library's main branch
Murals on the wall of the teen space in the Brownsville Public Library's main branch Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

The public library system in Brownsville, Texas, has a long history of inventing and then reinventing itself to be of, by, and for the people. The library story began modestly at the end of the 19th century, with the personal collection of Irish-born U.S. Army Captain William Kelly, who had settled in Brownsville and become a renowned businessman, proponent of Brownsville’s first public schools, and a civic activist. His daughter Geraldine recollected later in the Brownsville Herald, “He had a very fine library, which he used continually and loved.”

In 1912, a group of Brownsville’s intellectual and high-minded women calling themselves the Learners Club started the town’s first subscription library. (Other women’s clubs have been promoters of early libraries: In 1905, the women’s club of Dodge City, Kansas, inspired some of its prominent citizens to ask Andrew Carnegie if he would support building one of his libraries in Dodge City. He did.)

A decade and a half later, the Learners Club and the city teamed up to transform the Brownsville subscription library into a public library in a larger space. It moved a few more times over the next decades, before partnering with Texas Southmost College and locating the public library on its campus. There they stayed until 1991.

Then, with the city’s support, the Brownsville public library pivoted toward its modern era.

Jerry Hedgecock, who has been with Brownsville libraries since 1993 and is now the director of the Public Information Services Department in Brownsville, described to me how the library was able to start back in the 1990s, in effect from scratch, with the driving mission to make the library a go-to destination for the residents of Brownsville. They erected a new building and ushered in new ideas and new programs.

The Brownsville Public Library’s main branch (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

After some early years, which Hedgecock described as, “to be honest, very boring,” they prepared to change emphasis so as to offer more services. It was all about being relevant to the community, he said: “What do the people want? What do we want?”

Library plans were farsighted; they were creative and intended to reflect the culture of the town and region; and they were executed efficiently and also patiently, adding projects piecemeal, year by year. With a line item in the municipal budget supporting them ($4.8 million in 2019), a library foundation that contributes to capital projects, and the still vital Learners Club and a Friends group pitching in, the library evolved.

End panels on bookshelves of the Brownsville Public Library (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

One year, old wallpaper was removed. Another year, end panels with blown-up photos of important images of the region were affixed to the rows of bookshelves. To be both efficient and personalized, the library created a graphics department to make their own artwork, with double wins of being less expensive and more Brownsville-personal than what was available from generic catalogs.

Computers at the Brownsville Public Library (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

The library currently owns and makes available to users 259 computers, as online access is critical to this community. But the library’s leaders expect that as more people become able to afford their own computers, the need will ratchet down, and the library will switch some of the computer space to suit different needs.

As with every other library I visited, use of space was a top concern. (This is despite the common impression that libraries must have lots of extra space, as some reduce their holdings of physical books.) Even in Texas, where the size and scale of everything from ranches to libraries feels vast, Hedgecock says that space in the library is tight, and they pay close attention to how they use every nook and cranny.

The “maker space” holds eight 3D printers, and there are plans for laser cutters and more.

The “maker space” at the Brownsville Public Library (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

Maybe they’ll build a tool bank, suggested Hedgecock, an area that would be stocked with devices and equipment to meet the expanding skill sets of their population. Being nimble and responsive to the population and their changing needs is critical. “Without new services,” Hedgecock said, “we won’t be relevant to the community. We can’t be complacent.”

The library took over the local-government access television channel, whose studio is housed inside the building. The public was delighted, but became distracted enough by its presence that the station is now out of sight behind unmarked closed doors. There are plans to relocate the station to a newly created municipal department. I found this recording from the station of a live event presented by Texas Monthly in Brownsville this July. This magazine, where my husband, Jim, worked in its founding days in the 1970s, when we were living in Austin while I did my graduate studies at the University of Texas, takes its show on the road around Texas for live 90-minute performances of music, video, reading, and storytelling, curated by the editors. You’ll do yourself a favor to watch this one, where writer Wes Ferguson reads about his return to Brownsville.

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The new 'Arc of Dreams' sculpture over the Big Sioux River in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in July 2019, shortly before its formal unveiling.
The new 'Arc of Dreams' sculpture over the Big Sioux River in downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in July 2019, shortly before its formal unveiling. James Fallows / The Atlantic

In June 2013, my husband, Jim, and I first landed our small, single-engine Cirrus propeller airplane at the main airport, Joe Foss Field, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

It was the first stop on our American Futures project, and we were excited and a little nervous wondering what we might find—if anything—to explore and write about there.

We needn’t have worried.

We learned about the waves of refugees and immigrants, and their children who made up nearly 10 percent of the school system and spoke more than 60 languages. We learned about the John Morrell packing plant, where Muslim women slaughtered pigs all day, keeping the plant in business and establishing an economic beachhead for their families. And the USGS-EROS site, which captured, downloaded, and stored the entire country’s satellite imagery every 90 minutes, day in and day out, over the decades. And Raven Industries, which developed and manufactured precision-agriculture equipment and made balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.

We met nurses who had moved to Sioux Falls from all over the region to study and practice, and with their “Midwest nice” treated us to a beer at the Granite City brewery when they learned it was our anniversary. We rode bikes on the path that circled the city, passing again the airport, the state penitentiary, and downtown area and falls and many fields where the New Americans played soccer.

Our initial gee whiz reaction to Sioux Falls sprang from the multitude of the town’s endeavors and the loftiness of its citizens’ dreams. How could so much be going on in one town that we had barely heard of before? Little did we know that after visiting 10 or 30 or 50 more towns around the country, we would come to expect similar ventures, or more accurately, local versions of them, as we grew to admire the creative energy that so many Americans poured into their hometowns across the country.


More than five  years and 100,000 miles later, Sioux Falls became the first city we wrote about in our book, Our Towns. We returned again a few weeks ago with an HBO film crew, for a documentary scheduled to come out next year. With them we wanted to see and document how the town had changed, to revisit some of our favorite places, and to discover new ones.

Once again in Sioux Falls, we found a more mature, nuanced town. Some early initiatives had come to fruition, like the expanded sculpture walk and the capstone of sculpture, the gallant Arc of Dreams, which soars across the Big Sioux River. Or the additional blocks and blocks of new restaurants, bars, shops, and hip lofts stretching down the main street. Others remained a work in progress. Some problems, opioid addictions above all, were much more front of mind, proof that Sioux Falls was in sync with the rest of America.

After our first visit in 2013, I made a word cloud of words and phrases that I heard around Sioux Falls that struck me as reflecting the spirit of the city. After our latest visit a few weeks ago, I made another. You can compare and contrast, as college teachers of my generation used to say. Here is the first one:

Word Cloud of Sioux Falls, from Our Towns (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

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The headquarters of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, in Danville, Virginia
The headquarters of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, in Danville, Virginia Courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research

Here is another look at the far-southern-Virginia town of Danville: once a thriving tobacco-and-textile center, now trying to figure out what to do after all the mills have shut down.

In keeping with the previously announced intention to keep drawing connections, parallel themes, and lessons from the communities we visit, here are three aspects of Danville’s story worth noticing elsewhere, as boiled down as I can make them. A summary:

  • First, Danville’s civic renewal shows the importance of a relatively new form of philanthropy.
  • Second, it shows the importance of creative use of a onetime historical event—in this case, the “tobacco settlement,” which directed billions of dollars from the tobacco industry to local institutions. (This naturally leads to questions about whether a comparable “opioid settlement” might have similar transformative effects.)
  • Third, it shows the importance of public investment in infrastructure, specifically in broadband capacity.
Old mill buildings in downtown Danville being reoccupied (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Previously, I did several reports on Danville’s attempt to put its extensive (and beautiful) inventory of old mill buildings to modern use: “The Reinvention of Danville’s Downtown, Part 1,” “Danville’s Story, Part 2,” and “How Danville Avoided Omaha’s Mistake.” Deb Fallows has written about the involvement of Danville’s faith community (and others) in dealing with rural health issues (“A Regional Approach to Rural Health Challenges”), and about the exceptional new Y that has opened alongside the Dan River downtown ( “A Community Within a Community”).

On to the details.


1) The role of foundations—and foundations of a particular sort: Institutions called “community foundations” are well known, active, long-established, and important across the country. Each year, they give a total of more than $5 billion to civic and charitable efforts in their areas.

The evolution of Danville and its surroundings has been very heavily influenced over the past 15 years by a similar-sounding but structurally different sort of charitable organization, the “health conversion foundation.”

In Danville, the relevant organization is called the Danville Regional Foundation, or DRF. The DRF’s effects in this part of Virginia and North Carolina are too broad and deep to cover in any detail here. For more of the specifics, I direct you to the DRF’s informative site, or articles like this in The State of the South or this in Perspectives on History. Almost everything under way in the vicinity—from the revival of Danville’s downtown to the launching of regional initiatives connecting smaller towns that have lost tobacco, textile, or furniture industries—bears the mark of the DRF. Its area of responsibility includes the city of Danville itself, neighboring Pittsylvania County in Virginia, and the larger Dan River area extending into Caswell County in rural North Carolina.

Why is this worth mentioning? Because of the foundation’s origin story. It’s one of a group of health conversion foundations across the country that have played a surprisingly large civic role over the past generation. Or at least surprising to me, since I hadn’t know about this specific form of modern philanthropy until our first trip to Danville last fall.

You can read extensive details about health conversion foundations from Health Affairs, but in brief: These are charities set up when a nonprofit hospital or similar facility is sold to a private company. Hundreds of them operate around the country, with total assets in the tens of billions. Some examples are the Rapides Foundation, of Louisiana, founded with $140 million in hospital-sale proceeds in 1994; the Cameron Foundation, of Petersburg, Virginia, founded in 2003 with hospital-sale proceeds valued at about $90 million in 2008; and the Harvest Foundation, of Martinsville, Virginia, which was also founded with the proceeds from the sale of a hospital, in 2002, with assets valued at about $200 million in 2008. Many more examples are listed in the Rural Health Initiative newsletter, here.

In Danville’s case, the foundation was formed after the sale of the local Danville Regional Hospital Center to a private company, LifePoint Hospitals, in 2005 for about $200 million. The DRF has given out some $116 million in grants since then; and through the magic of investments and the market, its endowment is now larger than when it began.


The restored tobacco building on Bridge Street in downtown Danville that the Danville Regional Foundation shares with Averett University (Courtesy of the Danville Regional Foundation)

Could the sale of a nonprofit health center to a for-profit firm conceivably be a net benefit for a community? As opposed to one more step toward an over-marketized, winner-take-all society?

I started out skeptical, and I still assume that the outcomes must vary case by case, depending on how the new foundation’s money is put to use, and how the new for-profit system runs. But an initial look at think-tank and academic papers suggests that many of the foundations have tried to address public-health and community-improvement goals in their areas.

For instance, here are some reports and articles I’ve seen: “With the ACA Under Fire, Can Health Conversion Foundations Patch the Safety Net for Low-Income Americans?,” in Health Affairs in 2017; “How Are Health Conversion Foundations Using Their Resources to Create Change?,” also in Health Affairs, in 2018; “Health Conversion Foundations: How to Make Them Relevant,” in Nonprofit Quarterly in 2016; and “A New Generation of Health Foundations,” in Healthcare Finance in 2014. On balance, they offer a positive assessment.

“I won’t say that every one of these foundations has fulfilled its potential,” Karl Stauber, who is stepping down this summer after a dozen years as the head of the Danville Regional Foundation, told me. “But my estimation is that two in 10 have had an oversized impact on the revitalization of the areas that they serve.”

Maybe everyone else reporting on rural and smaller-town development already knew about health conversion foundations. I hadn’t understood the importance of this recent part of the philanthropic landscape until we were introduced to it in Danville. (Now, of course, I see signs of it everywhere.)

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What Deb Fallows discovered in the children's museum at the Washington Pavilion, in Sioux Falls
What Deb Fallows discovered in the children's museum at the Washington Pavilion, in Sioux Falls James Fallows / The Atlantic

A year ago, America’s Favorite Actor™, Tom Hanks, triggered a series of reports on TV and in the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He did so with one little tweet saying that he’d read about the town in a new book—as it happens, the book was Our Towns, by Deb Fallows and me—and that he was eager to see the city himself, and might even move there.

You can get a sample of what happened next here, here, here, and here.


Now Deb and I are back in Sioux Falls, working with our colleagues from HBO on our upcoming film.

  • The town still has the exceptionally low unemployment rate we talked about early on.
  • It still has its agricultural economy that we discussed, though buffeted by trade tensions and extreme weather, plus the region’s rapidly growing health-care and high-tech sectors.
  • It now has a dramatically spiffed-up and revitalized downtown, compared with our last visit several years ago—offsetting the malls and sprawl-growth around its periphery that we discussed here. The downtown has new hotels and restaurants and stores and pubs; many more residential condos and lofts; a much richer array of outdoor public art in its ambitious SculptureWalk; and generally a sense of more active street life.
  • In its “Washington Pavilion,” a mammoth former public high school whose rescue and conversion into an arts-and-museum space starting 20 years ago was the turning point toward the city’s downtown recovery, we saw two signs that the city is seriously ready for Tom Hanks’s visit.

One was backstage at the elegant 1,800-seat main performance hall, with a wall of signatures from guest artists. These ranged from Yo-Yo Ma to B. B. King, Joan Baez to Blue Man Group, Garth Brooks to the Paul Taylor Dance Company, with countless others in between. I saw a space that looked as if it were waiting for Tom Hanks’s name.

The other sign—could this be a coincidence?!—was in the wonderful, interactive children’s-science museum within the same Washington Pavilion. On the upper floor there is an oversize piano keyboard, playable with your feet and labeled “Big,” that could have been taken straight from a memorable scene from Tom Hanks’s early filmography.

Yes, I am talking about his famous piano-dancing duet with Robert Loggia more than 30 years ago, in Big. This was a Hanks from long before Forrest Gump or A League of Their Own, before Cast Away or Saving Private Ryan, before Philadelphia or Sleepless in Seattle or Apollo 13—and it is worth watching now, with awareness of all those other films to come.

And it’s another reason for him to make his visit. The town’s all ready for you, Mr. Hanks!

More from this series

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