A Dinner in Camelot: How Far We Have Fallen

June 21st, 2018

A few weeks ago , the press reported aggressively on the fact that Kim Kardashian had visited the White House. Just as it had the visits of Kid Rock and Ted Nugent before her. With homage toDr. Seuss, Oh, how far we have fallen.

On April 29, 1962, John F. Kennedy welcomed a group of Nobel Prize winners to the White House. Other guests included William Styron, James Baldwin, Mary Welsh Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s widow, who sat next to the President and grilled him on Cuba policy. Also there were John Glenn, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Researcher Linus Pauling, and Pablo Casals. Actor Fredric March gave a public recitation after the meal,

Held at the height of the Cold War, the dinner celebrated American achievement, and symbolized a time when ideas and facts were esteemed, divergent viewpoints could be respectfully discussed and the great minds of an age might all dine together in the glamour of “the people’s house.”

It was about this event that Kennedy said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

To revel for twenty minutes on what used to be, you’ll want to listen to Joesph Esposito, the author of Dinner in Camelot: The Night America's Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House. 

My conversation with Joseph Esposito:

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The Ultimate Silicon Valley Scam

June 19th, 2018

180518143635-elizabeth-holmes-bad-blood-By now we are all familiar with crimes and criminals on Wall Street. Bernie Madoff, Enron, Ivan Boesky, Barry Minkow and many others that have become household names. On the West Coast, the startup world of Silicon Valley had been somewhat spared from this taint. The world of “insanely great products,” “do no evil,” and “bringing friends together,” has, at least until recently, kept it’s patina.

Yet in a world where people want to see the future and want to be a part of it, it certainly was a fertile ground for fraud. And no one perpetrated a greater fraud than Elizabeth Holes and her company Theranos.

The story of a company whose mission was to tell you everything about your blood, with a simple finger prick, seemed too good to be true. And like most thing that seem too good to be true, it was.

John Carreyrou is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal.  He has, from the beginning, been the leader in telling the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. His book, soon to be a major motion picture, is Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

My conversation with John Carreyrou:

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Things Can Always Get Worse in America…And They Often Have

June 13th, 2018

Jon-Meacham-Soul-of-America-Crop.jpgI assume that most of you believe that the state of America has seldom been worse. Racial progress, America as a melting pot, the global alliance that has seen us through the past 75 years, character, civility, and liberal democracy itself, all seem to be under siege. While this is all true, it's also true is that we’ve been here before.

There have been many dark moment in American history. Maybe there is something in our very DNA that sets us up for it. But certainly from the Alien and Sedition acts though the Civil War, the industrial revolution, America First, the great depression, Jim Crow, the cold war and the tyranny of Joe McCarthy, we’ve seen that bad things happen to good countries.

Each time though we have emerged stronger. We have understood that the fault was not in our stars, but in ourselves and so we have reached deeply within ourselves for our better angels. But as the pundits of Wall Street ask all the time, is it different this time?  This is the heart of Pulitzer Prize winning historian and best selling author Jon Meacham's latest work The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

My conversation with Jon Meacham:

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The Country’s Collapsing…and the Ratings are Great

June 11th, 2018

1527037155974-charlie-leduff.webpEveryday we get another glimpse of just how divided America is. The racial training at Starbucks, the horrendous tweets from Roseanne Barr, and the ongoing collection of psychotic hate filled lies from the president, are just some recent manifestations.

To try and understand it all, Charlie LeDuff takes the journalistic admonition to “go here,” and puts it on steroids. Charlie is part of the great tradition of participatory journalists, people like George Plimpton, and David Foster Wallace. In his latest work Sh*tshow!: The Country's Collapsing . . . and the Ratings Are Great, what he participates in is America as it is today. And for him, it is splintering, collapsing and headed down the drain and in his view, no one is really talking about it.

My conversation with Charlie LeDuff:

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Conversations with Anthony Bourdain

June 11th, 2018

73df715f15a2920499fcd9cc279ed8a1--celebrSince last weeks tragic news, many have spoken of the multiple talents of Anthony Bourdain.  Over the years I had the privilege of learning about Bourdain, in his own words. 

Beginning all the way back in 2002, I had the opportunity to speak with him several times. We talked about foods around the world, the lure of the restaurant business, the depressing state of food culture in America, how he got his start, and what it meant to be chef today.  He told me that what he did was "like running away with the circus."  

What follows are some clips from those conversations.

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Suicide Among The Best And The Brightest: Portraits of Resilience

June 7th, 2018

Portraits-of-Resilience-2.jpgThe great songwriter Johnny Mandel wrote in the theme song for MASH, that “Suicide is Painless.” It’s not. The emotional pain and depression that often leads to it is anything but. Moreover the pain for the survivors is unfathomable.

Yet we have witnessing an epidemic of suicide among some of best and brightest young people today. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among college students.

And back in 2014 and 2015, even such an esteemed institution as MIT experienced a suicide cluster, resulting in the death of 6 students and 1 faculty member.

Because of its deeply personal nature, the search for symptoms and causes needs to be more personal than clinical. After the MIT suicides an MIT computer science professor, Daniel Jackson, set out to do something to begin to understand what had happened and to help others.

What he did, reached not into the pharmacy, but into the soul of his students. These end result is Portraits of Resilience.

My conversation with Professor Daniel Jackson:

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Bobby Kennedy May Have Been The Last Genuine Progressive

June 4th, 2018

maxresdefault.jpgThere are many that believe that solution of our fractured politics is simply for individuals to take power from the grassroots. That bottom up organizing is the antidote to the wave of authoritarianism that is sweeping the world.

The counter to that argument is that even with committed grass roots efforts, charismatic and effective leadership is essential.

The 60’s represented the end of consensus politics in America. Since that time we have been searching for the politician or leader that could restore that. The irony has been that in this time of hyper polarity, it’s been impossible for that leader to emerge. So we look back to what might have been. And when we do, the image, the mythology and the reality of Bobby Kennedy rises as an apparition from the body politic.

He had a unique ability to to match an empathetic and compassionate agenda with the instincts of a street fighter. Something the left has not been very good at. As we mark the death of Bobby Kennedy today, I’ve joined by Richard Allen, the author of RFK: His Words for Our Times

My conversation with Richard Allen:

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The American Tailspin: Can We Ever Pull Up?

June 2nd, 2018

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How did our culture, politics and economy get where we are today? Just how bad is it and is it fixable? By comparison, 50 years ago, the country was truly coming apart. War, assassination and riots undermined the very fabric of America.

All of this came just twenty years after the Greatest Generation won the the war, and five years after Camelot. Out of this cauldron came of age a new generation. One, as Kennedy said, was “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.”

So what happened and how does it explains today’s disfunction, chaos, distrust and tribalism? The tailspin we seem to be in, finds it origins and in turn maybe its solutions, in the the molten core of something that happened in the 1960’s

To try and find and pull these threads together, Steven Brill gives us Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America's Fifty-Year Fall--and Those Fighting to Reverse It

My conversation with Steven Brill:

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Humans at Our Best and Worst

May 29th, 2018

robertsapolsky_may25.jpgIn trying to understand what makes us tick, people still debate the old nature vs. nurture argument. Yet modern science, medicine, psychology and biology all tell us it’s far more complex.

In fact it’s a little like a variation of the uncertainty principle in physics. The very act of trying to understand our behaviors or the behavior of others, tell us more about the observers and sometimes the way in which the observer is even influenced by others behavior

This complexity is what Robert Sapolsky examines in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

My conversation with Robert Sopolsky:

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Today’s Struggle With Russia Is More Than Cold War 2.0

May 23rd, 2018

McFaulCold.jpgNot since the apogee of the Cold War has Russia been so paramount in our national discourse. But Churchill’s “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” is a very different Russia than the former Soviet Union. Although as Churchill pointed out, Russian national interest still seems the key.

Vladimir Putin, while Russian to the core, is somehow different from Khrushchev, and Brezhnev and Gorbachev, or the Tsars that came before.

Our conflicts and tensions with Russia today are also different. We risk making a big mistake if we don’t understand modern context. If we don’t understand that this is not just Cold War 2.0, but rather a global conflict whose antecedents may be the Cold War, but whose reality is sui generis to the world in the 21st century.

Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul pulls of this together and a lot more in From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.

My conversation with Ambassador Michael McFaul:

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Railroads and Highways and Ports, Oh My

May 23rd, 2018

image2-19-700x470.jpgWe hear over and over in our domestic political debates about the need to improve America’s infrastructure, that to do so is good for business and in the big picture, good for the economy and a projection of America as a global leader. Certainly, LaGuardia Airport and the 45 years it took to build the Second Avenue Subway in New York are not good indications.

On the other side of the world, few countries have repeatedly taken on infrastructure projects as big as those taken on by China. From the movement of water to the transportation of people, the Chinese have seen infrastructure not only as good for its internal economy, but as a true projection of pride and power. Now, these projects have pierced the Chinese border in the form of China’s One Belt, One Road project. The question is, has China gone a railroad bridge too far?

This is the among the questions that Will Doig asks in his book High-Speed Empire: Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia.

My WhoWhatWhy.org conversation with Will Doig:

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Robin

May 23rd, 2018

636612852095520813-ROBIN-cover.jpgSomeone once said of actors that they have their emotions much closer to the surface than the rest of us, in order to make them more easily accessible. If this is true, than it might be said that for some comedians their emotions are not just close to the surface, but raw and fully exposed.

In the case of Robin Williams this certainly seems to have been the case. With Williams you always had the feeling that the more he exposed about himself and about the human condition, the more he made us see it and laugh about it, the more it took him to deep and dark places to find it.

With comedians it's often a question as to whether they are just reflective of the culture and the time they work in, or perhaps the way Lenny Bruce did, they actually help shape that culture.

For Williams the jury is still out. That’s why Dave Itzkoff’s new biography of Williams, Robin, is so important.

My conversation with Dave Itzkoff:

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We Think It’s Stormy Now…..1968 Was Far Worse….And We Survived

May 17th, 2018

51f3vTCx%252BAL._SX326_BO1%252C204%252C2Historians have long written about inflection points in history. In American history, events surrounding the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War & Reconstruction, the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, and WWII, are all such points.

It’s arguable that we may very well be living though another one right now. But clearly the last great historical inflection point came exactly fifty years ago, and reached its apogee in the year of 1968. Lyndon Johnson was President, and a series of events led us to believe like Yeats, “that the center cannot hold, and that mere anarchy was loose upon the land.”

The Tet Offensive, MLK and RFK assassinations, the Praque Spring, racial conflicts, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, Lyndon Johnson's decision not to seek reelection and the election of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, made 1968 quite a year.

Lyndon Johnson presided over it all and that's the story that historian Kyle Longley tells in LBJ's 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America's Year of Upheaval

My conversation with Kyle Longley:

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If Gina Haspel is confirmed, will CIA torture begin anew?

May 16th, 2018

image2-15-700x470.jpgThe debate over Gina Haspel running the CIA has, like most things, devolved into a partisan political debate: The usual tribes, the usual sides, and the usual arguments. But if we can only step back a bit, we see that it’s so much more. It goes to the heart of who we are as a nation, as a moral society, and whether we can ever again be that shining city on a hill.

As the nomination becomes closer to a vote in the Senate, we’re going to talk about it with John Kiriakou, who was the first member of the intelligence community to expose the CIA’s use of torture, and as a result, became one of the very few Americans ever prosecuted under the Espionage Act, for which he served 23 months in federal prison.

My WhoWhatWhy.org conversation with John Kiriakou.

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The Moral Horror of Our Times

May 16th, 2018

51zs3EUzJUL.jpgLook at any days news output, and its getting harder and harder to separate fact from fiction. Not because of fake news, but because the real news and the actions of so many cross the bounds of credible behavior.

As someone recently pointed out, after a few recent days of the usual craziness, if someone had submitted the days real events has a script or story idea for West Wing, or Homeland or even House of Cards, , it would have been rejected as too absurd.

The sad truth is that it’s really happening. This is why it’s sometimes necessary to look at it all in the realm of fiction or specifically a kind of meta fiction. This is what Laurie Calhoun does in her novel You Can Leave.

My conversation with Laurie Calhoun:

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Moore’s Law Does Not Apply To Relationships

May 15th, 2018

jc.pngIt’s become a cliche, but the fact is that in just the past 10 years, almost everything we do has changed. From the way we drive, take pictures, communicate, shop, to the way we seek relationships.

What hasn’t changed is the fundamental underlying idea of human relationships. Connecting, relating and maybe even falling in love. It’s probably a good thing that evolutionary biology is not subject to Moore's Law.

So how do we reconcile the two? How does Tinder or Match or Bumble sync up with our human needs, which have not really changed  all that much in thousands of years? Trying to tie these threads together is Joanna Coles in her new book Love Rules: How to Find a Real Relationship in a Digital World

My conversation with Joanna Coles:

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Globalization and its Discontents

May 12th, 2018

image2-11-700x470.jpgTrump, Brexit, and the worldwide populist revolution are not causes, but symptoms. Symptoms of a wider systemic plague of fear of change, anxiety, and a feeling by people of being part of a world they no longer can control or even understand.

Technology today, rather than being a cause, is merely the host that carries the fear. Not unlike the Industrial Revolution a century ago, disruptive change takes its toll. The difference now is that it all happens at hyper speed, and in full view 24/7. How we deal with it, whether we put those that have been left behind in Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables, or find leadership that will lift up entire countries may very well determine the fate of the world.

Ian Bremmer, the president and founder of Eurasia Group is more on point than most in understanding all this is going on. He explains a big part of it in Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism.


My WhoWhatWhy.org conversation with Ian Bremmer:

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Freedom, Liberty & America…A Look Back

May 8th, 2018

Ricks.jpgIn his book Profiles in Courage, JFK writes that courage exists “when a man does what he must — in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers, and pressures — and that is the basis of all human morality.”

It’s hard to even think about this in the realm of pubic life in 2018. A time when courage is in short supply, reality is subjective and facts are not the “stubborn things” that John Adams said they were, but merely fungible talking points to gin up the base.

It’s sad then that we have to rely almost solely on history to find examples of this courage and morality. That’s where multiple Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Thomas Ricks tanks us in his joint biography Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom

My conversation with Thomas Ricks:

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Dear Madam President

May 3rd, 2018

hrcpalmieri111478465111.jpgThere is a line from the 1973 movie The Way We Were, where Katie Morosky, played by Barbra Streisand, talks about Hubbell Gardner, played by Robert Redford. She says of Gardner/Redford, “In a way he was like the country he lived in; everything came too easily to him.”

And that has been a narrative, albeit, often a false one, of ease and grace that the public often seeks to buy into with respect to its leaders. Certainly Kennedy successfully exploited it, maybe even laid the political predicate for it, in his race against Nixon in 1960. In a way it was even a part of the Obama narrative.

On the flip side, it may have very well worked against Hillary Clinton in 2016. It seems that for Hillary Clinton, nothing came easily. Everything she had ever achieved was, or appeared to be, a struggle. One that played out on the public stage for more than 40 years.

Jennifer Palmieri got to see this up close and personal as Hillary Clinton’s Communications Director, and herself a veteran of many years in politics and in the White House. She brings it all into focus in her new book Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World

My conversation with Jennifer Palmieri:

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The Fragility of Hope

May 3rd, 2018

9780399575259.jpegWoody Allen once said that the world was divided into the horrible and the miserable. The horrible he thought were people with terminal cases, blind people, and the crippled. “I don't know how they get through life,” he said. “It's amazing to me.”

To answer Woody Allen's existential question, it is usually hope that carries the day. But the form that that hope takes can vary widely. Sometimes, it grows out of faith, sometimes out of denial and sometimes out of science. This is often true for both real cutting edge science, or the placebo that is most Western medicine.

Author and journalist Richard M. Cohen, has long lived with conditions Woody Allen would call horrible. Yet though his writings and his voice, he has not only defined his hope, he has given it to others. He does so once again in his look at stem cell research in Chasing Hope: A Patient's Deep Dive into Stem Cells, Faith, and the Future.

My conversation with Richard M. Cohen:

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