From Kabul to the Oval Office

July 27th, 2016

Daniel Patrick Moynihan is often quoted as saying that “you can have your own opinion, but not your own facts.”  This is as true in looking at the world, as it is here at home.  There are  lots of opinions about the US role and US actions in the world, specifically the Middle East.  However, facts come first.  And part of those facts include an understanding of the people, the history and the nuance of the region.  Our domestic politics has debates every day about who best understands the American people...we conduct our global affairs with a similar understanding of others?

When it comes to the Middle East in general, or to Afghanistan, to Iraq and even our international policy architecture in the post war era, few understand the people, the history and the nuance better than Zalmay Khalilzad. He’s served four Presidents and has traveled from a small village in Afghanistan to the pinacle of the Oval Office.  He tells that story in The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World

My conversation with Zalmay Khalilzad: 

Can We Really See Russia From Any Window?

July 26th, 2016
9780857891594.jpgIn October of 1939, Winston Churchill said of Russia that “I cannot forecast to you the actions of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."

Today, almost 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we could say exactly the same thing about Russia.  The Russia that Gorbachev ushered in as the Cold War ended is seemingly a far cry from the Russia today of Vladimir Putin.

What happened?  Did the country change, the people change, or were the current tendencies there all along? Arkady Ostrovsky, the Russian-born journalist who has spent fifteen years reporting from Moscow, first for the Financial Times and then as bureau chief for The Economist, digs deep in his book The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev's Freedom to Putin's War.

My conversation with Arkady Ostrovsky: 

Could Star Wars Help Us Solve The World’s Problems?

July 25th, 2016
cass-sunstein-world-according-to-star-waIt’s no surprise that the influence of western popular culture is everywhere, even in our affairs of state.  Remember  when Ronald Reagan spoke the phrase “evil empire?” It was just five years after the release of the original Star Wars.  The Empire was on all of our minds and the comparisons were immediate.

When was the last time your were pulled over and wished you could just wave your hand and call on the power of the the force?  

When George Lucas created Star Wars he was fully aware of the primal power of narrative. He was a long time devotee of Joseph Campbell and knew that Star Wars would become a palette of archetypes that would burrow deep into our consciousness.  

The only questions is how much Lucas and Star Wars reflected the culture of the time, or in fact, through its successes, helped to create and expand its own iconography.

Today, almost 40 after that premiere, legal critic and behavioral economist Cass Sunstein, deconstructs Star Wars in light of 21st century in The World According to Star Wars.

My conversation with Cass Sunstein:  

The War at Home

July 20th, 2016
rachel-starnes.pngConfucius may have said it first, but the oft quoted and repeated phrase, “wherever you go, there you are,” can certainly apply to families in the military.

Even in a culture as mobile and connected as ours, the reality of constantly moving, long separations,  anxiety, stress, and danger are all realities that are not easily offset by Skype or Facetime.

We’ve seen and read a lot about military families.  But what’s it like today in a mobile/global culture and with warfare, not cold but hot, as an almost permanent condition?

Rachel Starnes has lived this life and writes from the heart in The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible): A Memoir

My conversation with Rachel Starnes:

Success and Luck

July 15th, 2016
hqdefault.jpgAs a society, we’ve all been brought up to believe deeply in the idea of the self made man.  The power of persistence and hard work.  The Horatio Alger mythology of pulling oneself up by your own bootstraps. In modern political theology we hear about “makers” and “takers,”  and Randian and libertarian ideas.

We embrace that quote by Jefferson that, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

What we leave out of the equation is the role of pure dumb luck.  Being in the right place at the right time.  The existential circumstances over which we often have no control and often account for good things happening. That the jumping for point for Robert H. Frank in his book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.

My conversation with Robert H. Frank:  

Bobby Kennedy

July 14th, 2016
920x920.jpgFor those of us that old enough, when we think back to JFK and Camelot, we think of a time of innocence, of renewal and of possibility.  And then the 60’s happened.  There has been a lot of talk lately about the 60’s. About the fissures it opened up, and about the fact that we are still trying to heal them.  Sydney Schanberg, the great reporter who died last week, once told me in an interview that he thought Vietnam represented the end of consensus politics in America.

Since then we have been seemingly searching for the politician or the leader that could bridge that divide. The irony has been that in a time of 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 and mythology of Bobby Kennedy rises as almost an apparition from the body politic.  

Why?  What was it about Bobby that made us think he was different?  It wasn’t his conviction, or his ideology or his morality or his intellect or his manners.  Perhaps it was a unique ability to empathize, to see all sides, to shape-shift in ways that allowed him to find truth, or at least consensus where none had existed.

This is the Bobby Kennedy we get in Larry Tye new biography 
Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon.

My conversation with Larry Tye:

White Trash: A History

July 12th, 2016
white-trash-001.jpgWhile politicians often talk of all those things that unite us as Americans, there are equally powerful forces that divide us.  At the center of that divide is the often taboo subject of class.

Even more than race, the class divide lies at the base of the chasm that separates what John Edward once called “Two Americas.”  The symbols are everywhere.  Starbucks America vs.  Dunkin' Donuts America.  Educated vs. non educated.  Walmart vs. Whole Foods, etc.  But these symbols are but the latest manifestation of a 400 year history of class conflict in America.

That the story told by Nancy Isenberg in her new book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

My conversation with Nancy Isenberg: 

How Digital Memory May Change What Makes Us Human

July 8th, 2016
abby.pngBack in 320 BC Socrates worried about how written language would impact our ability to remember. This was long, long before moveable type, the computer, the pda or any form of digital technology.

Socrates worried that reliance on simply writing would erode memory. But also and maybe more importantly, that reading would mislead students to think that they had knowledge, when they only had data. 

Today, similar debates are going on with respect to the digital world. Leading a great deal of this discussion and giving us much insight is Abby Smith Rumsey in her book When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future

My conversation with Abby Smith Rumsey: 

Campaign 1776 - The War That We Almost Lost

July 2nd, 2016
ac6996a5ee1cd8a9017554d50363b0a6_f11347.On this day, upon which we celebrate the birth of the “American Experiment,” it’s important to remember that it was not preordained.

In spite of today's overheated patriotic rhetoric, the revolution, the victory of the Continental Army, the success of Washington and the country that followed, could have easily gone another direction.  There were many times when the revolution might have failed.  (Given the state of our politics today, that may not have been such a bad idea)

Just as important and just as surprising are that there are still so many untold stories from that effort.  Stories that, particularly on this day, prove instructive, informative and most of all inspirational.

Patrick O’Donnell is the master of telling the stories of our military heroes and as O’Donnell shows us in Washington's Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution, it was the revolutionary generation that was indeed our greatest. 

My conversation with Patrick O'Donnell:

Life and Death in Palestine

June 28th, 2016
5db69fba1d04d16191f5fd46736bd869.jpegOne of the things we have been hearing lately, with respect to our own domestic politics,is the debate between conscience and politics. Sometimes our desire to see our own side win, has to be tempered by a broader view of the moral and human dimensions of an issue.

The ongoing struggle in the Middle East between Israelis and the Palestinians is no different.  No matter the depth of our appreciation for the remarkable miracle that is Israel, the matter of the Palestinian people and some of the decisions and actions taken by Israel must be viewed in a larger moral context.  In order to do that we have to really understand what’s happening on the ground, in places like the West Bank and Gaza. 

Ben Ehrenreich has been there.  Following the first rule of journalism he has gone there to live among the people and learn first hand the enormity of what’s going on. He writes about what he’s seen in The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine

My conversation with Ben Ehrenreich: 

Love Wins

June 27th, 2016
u34%252B1F%2521EVWH7ngw7NLVXIcKIKW2pmYA%Oliver Brown, the lead plaintiff in Brown v. the Board of Education was a parent of a child denied access to a Topeka Kansas School. Clarence Gideon changed the way poor defendant are treated in court. Ernesto Miranda and Jane Roe both, in their own ways, were part of cases that expanded the rights of individual citizens.

The latest name added to that pantheon is that of Jim Obergefell.  He was the named plaintiff in the Obergefell vs. Hodges which , just one year ago, enshrined the civil right of same sex marriage in all 50 states.  Jim has recently written about his experience in Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality

My conversation with Him Obergefell:

Who Started the War On Government?

June 23rd, 2016
Untitled-1_75.pngIn 1953 in his first Inaugural Address, Dwight Eisenhower talked about the positive impacts of government. Thirty years later Ronald Reagan castigated the role of government.  Twelve years after that we heard this from Bill Clinton that “the era of big government is over.”  

So what happened?  What happened to the partnership between business, the government and citizen that resulted in so much success and prosperity in the post war years?  What happened to the progressive agenda once embarrassed by Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt?  And what is the price we are paying today for the absence of that partnership?

Author and Professor Paul Pierson talks to me about all of this in on discussion of American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper.

My conversation with Paul Pierson: 

The Future is Inevitable

June 17th, 2016
The-Inevitable-HC.jpgIf there is one overriding meme today it’s about fear.  Fear of change, fear of a shrinking world, fear of the impact of technology; in short fear of an unknown future. Regardless of that fear, the future is inevitable.  It’s the place we are all going to be living.

Even for those that are afraid to embrace it, they should at least understand it.  Few see the future more clearly and are better able to explain it than WIRED founder Kevin Kelly. He lays out the agenda for future in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future 

My conversation with Kevin Kelly: 


Before the Play, There Was the Book

June 15th, 2016

photo-flash-ny-historical-society-presenBefore Lin-Manuel Miranda, before the Play there was the book.  Miranda has talked about how his inspiration was Ron Chernow's 2004 book about Hamilton.  Here is my May 2004 conversation with Ron Chernow about HAMILTON.


The Power of Grit

June 13th, 2016
h_duckworthangela.jpgWe are a nation that believes deeply in the Horatio Alger story of hard work and pulling oneself up by their bootstraps.  In political terms this has translated into an ethos of individualism, which arguably has been corrosive to our body politic.

In part, it grew in response to the culture of monarchy and inheritance that America was founded in opposition to.  It is certainly far more egalitarian to believe that we are the masters of our fate.  In economic terms, the Right has taken this to the extremes.  But what does it mean in terms of learning, education and personal success.

In this context, we see how the classic argument about nature and nurture has been extrapolated to talent vs. perseverance. Or, in the words of MacArthur Fellow and Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Angela Duckworth, into Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

My conversation with Angela Duckworth: 

What Really Helps Children Succeed?

June 10th, 2016
helping-children-succeed-title-image.jpgWe know that children living in poverty generally tend to do worse academically than middle class kids.  We also know that even some kids from wealthy backgrounds fail or breakdown. We’ve come to learn, in part through the writing of my guest Paul Tough, that it’s more than IQ or temperament. There is something else. Something that has to do with innate character, perseverance or just plain old fashioned grit.

But are these traits preordained? Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.
Are children merely geographically and genetically predisposed to succeed or fail, or are these attributes of success something that can be multiplied, embedded and programmed into children in ways that increase the likelihood of success in school and in life?  This is part of what Paul Tough now writes about in

My conversation with Paul Tough: 

The Tribal Bonds of Soldiers

June 7th, 2016
0.jpg“We hear of of war and the rumor of war.”  We thank our soldiers for their service and we think that we are welcoming them back into society.  But what are actually welcoming back into? They return often with an experience we cannot really comprehend. An experience that often bonds them together into their own tribe.  One that makes them different from us.  

In fact as many of us work hard to breakdown the tribal bonds that divide us as a society, as globalization continues to homogenize us,  both domestically and internationally, the experience of war often forms new, personal and deeper such bonds among the soldiers. In so doing, it makes it so much harder for them to be among us. 

Sebastian Junger the bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, A Death in Belmont and Fire takes a look at this phenomenon in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

My conversation with Sebastian Junger:

The end of humans

June 6th, 2016
RobotAutoManufacturing.jpgIf anything represents the new new thing in our technological age, it's the arena of artificial intelligence.  From the factory floor to the glittering glass office of law firms, smart machine are doing job, after job, after job.

The conversation about jobs going offshore is so yesterday.  Today it’s robots and algorithms that are the threats.

Manufacturing is only the beginning.  Service sector jobs, clerical jobs, accounting, paralegal, are all starting to be done by machines.  Drones will soon do deliveries and driving,  perhaps the largest bastion of blue collar jobs, will, within 10 years, be replaced by the autonomous vehicles.

So what’s left for humans?  As machines start to program themselves, as we’ve seen with autonomous cars, as more and more higher level functions are done by machines, what’s a human to do?

That the subject of Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines, a new book by Julia Kirby.

My conversation with Julia Kirby: 

How to deal with conflict all around us

June 1st, 2016
dan-shapiro-feat.jpgLook around us. Conflict is everywhere. In our culture, certainly in our politics, in the broader world and in our interactions with institutions.  Sometimes, to try and seek shelter from that sea of conflict, we look into our own personal relationships for solace.  When we do, we place even more pressure on those relationships and often the seeds of more conflict are sown.  

So with all of this conflict how do we negotiate our way out of it?  How do we break the habits of pervasive conflict, prevent or dampen conflict with those we care about, and are those skills applicable to the large framework of conflict.

These are some of the issues that Daniel Shapiro, the founder of Harvard’s International Negotiation Program takes up in Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts.

My conversation with Daniel Shapiro:

Finance vs. American Business

May 28th, 2016
048bfd57-f44b-44c5-8876-9d96c91901c8.jpgRecently I had a conversation with a Professor at UC Berkeley about the subject of Power.  In the course of the conversation he referred to what he saw as key centers of power. People who he saw as  exercising real power. He referred to great generals, political leaders and Wall Street.

Wall Street was once a reflection of America's business. It was there to serve business. Today Wall Street and the business of finance is it’s own power center. It’s often greater than and in control of the whole of American and even global business.

Wall Street has become THE symbol of corporate greed.  Railed against by politicians, analyzed 24/7 on several cable channels, the focus of it’s own newspapers and it’s stars, people like Stephen Schwarzman and Lloyd Blankfein, gracing the covers of magazines.

So how did this happen?  How did Wall Street and the business of money become bigger, more powerful and more important than the business it was originally there to serve.  

Rana Foroohar, the Assistant Managing Editor in charge of Economics and Business for Time magazine takes us through the history and future in Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business

My conversation with Rana Foroohar: