The Saudi Enigma - How Will Biden Deal With It?

December 1st, 2020
Screen%2BShot%2B2020-12-01%2Bat%2B11.09.24%2BAM.pngThere was a time when we looked upon Saudi Arabia as the gas station to the world. Certainly to the US. At the time it generated fear and a lack of understanding. It’s tribal structure, our lack of knowledge about its history and the repeated failures of US policy in the Middle East all placed the kingdom beyond our comprehension.

 

Its effort today to modernize both its culture and its economy, the US’s own confidence about oil independence and other dramatic geopolitical shifts have caused us to reassess the Saudi role in the world.  At the same time, the murder of Jamal Kashogi and other human rights abuses have not helped.  In short, Saudi Arabia still remains a great enigma. Trying to help us understand it is as a new administration must face another new policy is Saudi expert David Rundell, the author of Vision or Mirage: Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads.

 

My conversation with David Rundell:

Does America Need to Find Its First Principles? A conversation with Tom Ricks

November 23rd, 2020

Screen%2BShot%2B2020-11-23%2Bat%2B6.25.38%2BAM.pngThe past four years, really right up to this moment, have been a test for the American republic. Over and over we’ve heard it asked, “can our institutions hold, are the ideas and documents of the framers adequate for the modern age.” 


At the same time, we’ve heard over and over again since Nov. 8, 2016, how did we get here? What has driven us to such political and social division, to our appetite for authoritarianism, the disregard for norms, the rural-urban and the educational divide?

What ties all of these questions together is the idea that when faced with a complex sometimes unsolvable problem, it’s best to go back to foundational principles. 

To deconstruct the enterprise and strip it to its original foundation to see how all of the problems have been layered on and how we might find meaning and/or solutions. 

This is essentially what Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and another Tom Ricks does in his new work First Principles: What America's Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country

My conversation with Tom Ricks:

A Dolly Parton Moment

November 16th, 2020
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During our last great cultural and political upheaval in the 60s, music provided the soundtrack. Rock stars were not in Silicon Valley, but in the recording studios of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Nashville.

 
Historically, our culture has been shaped by music and music has shaped by our culture. Additionally music, like sports, has been a way out of poverty for many. Few personify this better, particularly for many women, then Dolly Parton, and no one captures this better than Sarah Smarsh in her new work She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs 
 
My conversation with Sarah Smarsh:  DOG

The Collapse of America’s Founding Mythology

November 9th, 2020
Screen%2BShot%2B2020-11-09%2Bat%2B1.34.41%2BPM.pngEvery company has its foundational myth. From the beginning, it becomes the basis of the company’s culture, its marketing, and really its DNA. The same is true for nations. And perhaps not surprisingly no nation has done a better job of that mythology than the United States. 

From the ideas of manifest destiny to John Winthrop's shining city on the hill, from freedom and equality to American exceptionalism, these stories are not only foundational for Americans, but they run in the American bloodstream.

So what happens when it’s discovered that the myth and reality don’t match up? That the emperor has no clothes. 

Ultimately, the myth is exposed, the wheels come off, the anger spreads, first internally and then outside and the enterprise usually collapses or morphs.

Arguably that’s what we’ve been living through today. The exposure and crumbling of the American myth. It explains the populist anger that brought Trump to power, as well as the anger on the other side that has fueled Black Lives Matter. When the myth is stripped bare, the company or the nation must be reinvested or die.

These ideas are at the heart of Jared Yates Sexton’s book  American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People.

 
My conversation with Jared Yates Sexton:   

Biden..We Hardly Knew Ye

November 1st, 2020
Screen%2BShot%2B2020-11-01%2Bat%2B4.01.51%2BPM.pngWith the election just hours away, think about how many Presidents we’ve watched grow into the office. Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Earlier JFK and Jimmy Carter also came to the office unseasoned
Compare this to Ike, or Reagan, George HW Bush, or Lyndon Johnson all who arrived, for better or worse as fully formed political and human beings.

In this year’s election, policy aside, Joe Biden comes to us having lived a very long public life during which time he has grown into the person and politician he is today. Arguable, as a man who would become the nation’s oldest president it is fair to say that he is not still becoming. 

While our presidential candidates seldom lack for position papers and policies, it’s who they are that ultimately determines if they have what it takes. Our vote for president is essentially a gut check vote about the man and the moment.

And sometimes, not always, but when we are lucky, the man and moment match up.

This is the question much of the nation is asking and answering about Joe Biden. After almost 50 years in the arena, it should be easy to answer. But amid all the clamoring, it takes work like the new book by National Book Award winner Evan Osnos to pull it all together in Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now

 
My conversation with Evan Osnos: 

Up Close and Personal with Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown

October 29th, 2020

Sherrod_Brown_NDAA_1088x725-700x470.jpgThe United States Senate was once considered the world’s greatest deliberative body. As we witnessed in the first presidential debate, it’s entirely possible that honest debate in America is actually dead. And why should we assume that the US Senate is any different?

But rather than coming to mourn what once was, perhaps by summoning up the history of some of those senators who once infused the body with all that made it and the country great, we can almost by sheer force of will create an environment that might let it bloom once again. After all, isn’t that why we study history, why we visit monuments and capitals and museums. So that we might take with us, in some primal and visceral way, the inspiration of the best that came before and integrate it into doing good today?

In part, this is what US Senator Sherrod Brown, does in his new book, Desk 88. 

My WhoWhatWhy conversation with Sen. Sherrod Brown

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Is Socialism Coming To America?

October 27th, 2020
Screen%2BShot%2B2020-10-27%2Bat%2B11.41.26%2BAM.pngBernie Sanders an avowed Democratic socialist, never a member of the Democratic party, ran two failed presidential campaigns, and yet he has succeeded in moving the Democratic Party to the left.

AOC, is a one-term congresswoman with no previous political experience and yet her Democratic Socialist views have gotten attention on a national scale.

Particularly among young people, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the state of capitalism and free markets today. Even the likes of billionaires such as Chase’s Jamie Diamon and Salesforce’s Mark Benioff have talked about the need for a new more inclusive capitalism. 

While this is essentially about the economy, it’s also about shifts in the social, cultural, and political landscape. The coronavirus has laid bare many of the lurking flaws in our system and the politics of the moment magnify everything.

Is this a tectonic shift in the politics of America or a temporary blip in an otherwise centrist nation?

John B. Judis breaks this down in his new work The Socialist Awakening: What's Different Now About the Left.

 
My conversation with John B. Judis: 

Are We So Divided that Secession Is The Only Answer?

October 23rd, 2020
1_peASrXNwaaf-SFd3RWLRKA.pngThere was a time when there were things that united us. Through most of the 20th century for example they were things that had nothing to do with politics. They were movies and TV shows and books and sports and one of the three choices for getting our evening television news. We were for a long time part of a commonweal, a kind of national town square that provided our water cooler conversation around the things we had in common. 

Over the past 40 years all that changed. Technology and the proverbial long tail atomized us into our individuals interests. The explosion of thousands of sources of news, entertainment and information satisfied us, satiated us really, but took away our common bonds.

The result is where we are today. On the verge of session. Divided as never before in an environment so fragile and truly the house divided will not stand.

David French has been thinking and writing and living this experience. He brings it forward in Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.

 
My conversation with David French: 

Jimmy Carter: A Good and Decent Presidency

October 14th, 2020
Screen%2BShot%2B2020-10-14%2Bat%2B3.01.22%2BPM.pngBefore his massive failure with the Covid crises, someone remarked that Donald Trump may not turn out to be the worst President we ever had, but for sure he will be the worst person ever to be President. In many ways, Jimmy Carter is the opposite. He may not have been a great President, but he may have been one of the best people to ever be President.

It’s hard to say if the problems that Carter faced, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, inflation, unemployment, and the Iranian hostage crisis, might have happened to any President of that period. But history tells us they were the crisis he was dealt. And the nature of them brought out some of Carter's worst, not his best qualities.

It really is a job that’s about the nexus between crisis and character. Sometimes they line up and sometimes they don't. For Carter, it was often out of sync. Jonathan Alter tell the whole story in His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.

 
My conversation with Jonathan Alter:  

Is White Collar Corruption the New Normal?

October 12th, 2020
Screen%2BShot%2B2020-09-28%2Bat%2B1.53.15%2BPM.pngFitzgerald got it right. The rich are different. Even in the way they commit crimes.

Law and order phrases are shouted from rooftops with respect to street crime, as small time criminals are abused by law enforcement and often overcharged. The reality is that crimes of much bigger significance, and many more victims, are committed in and from the boardroom.

While anger is still palpable in many places over those executives not not charged as for their role in the 2008/2009 financial meltdown, many smaller but similar white collar crimes have been committed with no oversight, no punishment and not even any more anger.

Has high end while collar crime simply become an acceptable cost of doing business? Has it become the collateral damage of capitalism that we are willing to accept? This is where Jennifer Taub takes us in Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crimeir?t=jeffschechtma-20&l=am2&o=1&a=1984879979.

My conversation with Jennifer Taub:

The Reverend Michael B. Curry: Advice for Times Like This Week/Month/Year

October 5th, 2020
TELEMMGLPICT000164014145_3_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqwtUT54c80eKHJHMfvK9NImtWLkXH92jWt3mkAOR8y98.webpThe world has been through tough times before. Wars, depression, the threat of Armageddon, and racial hatred are all nothing new. And yet something seems different today. Perhaps it’s the result of a generation that focused on the self. The me generation, the culture of selfishness, the enduring power of the work of Ayn Rand and obsessive focus on self esteem. Maybe these things have come together to make this moment as corrosive as it feels. 
 
So what the answer? The Beatles said that “all we need is love.” The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, the presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, also thinks love is the answer, but in a less sentimental and more transformative way. Reverend Curry garnered worldwide attention to his idea in his sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markel in May of 2018. 
 
Now he has taken it step further in his new book Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times 
 
My conversation with Rev. Michael B. Curry:

Should Donald Trump Make Us Rethink the Reagan Legacy For the Worse?

September 29th, 2020
Screen%2BShot%2B2020-09-29%2Bat%2B3.36.20%2BPM.pngDay after day people ask “how we got here?” In fact we don’t need a time machine. All we need do is to look back at the political history of the past 50 years and and we can see exactly how we got here.
 
With the rise of Reagan in the mid 70’s we can see with almost GPS precision, that map that got us to our tribalism that so deeply divides us today. 
 
We see the meanness, the racism, the quest for raw political power, particularly on the right. And while Reagan may have masked it in sunny optimism to make it digestible, it would later become the stuff of talk radio and the exploitation of populist anger. 
 
All of this is captured by Rick Perlstein in his new book Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980  
My conversation with Rick Perlstein:

Science and Politics are Now Linked

September 23rd, 2020
 
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If you picked up the New York Times one day last week, you would have discovered that about half of the stories on the front page were directly related to science. Think about what we are dealing with; public health, vaccines, climate change, fires and hurricanes, technology, privacy, transportation, artificial Intelligence, medicine, the frontiers of space and of our oceans and this is just some of it. 
 
The future of science is the future of mankind. As a result science journalism has come into its own, as recently we have seen that poor science reporting can lead to dangerous misinformation. Leading that effort in quality science journalism is Scientific America. It has been the gold standard and is the oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the United States. 
 
Last week, for the first time in its 175 year history, it dipped its toe in political waters making a presidential endorsement for the very first time. Explaining this decision is the Editor and Chief of Scientific America, Laura Helmuth
 
My conversation with Laura Helmuth: 

The Curse of the US/Britain Special Relationship

September 15th, 2020

download%2B%25281%2529.jpegBack on the 4th of July I saw a hat that said, "Make America Great Britain Again."  A good laugh, even more so when superimposed on the current relationship between the two countries.

Certainly there is that much vaunted “special relationship''. Not just between the countries, in an abstract geopolitical way, but between leaders that have been shaping and reacting to the world at similar times and in similar ways for the past seventy-five years.

While Great Britain may have lost its empire, its connection to the US in contemporary times, has kept it relevant and dynamic. But after seventy-five years is that relationship due for a refresh? If so, perhaps it will require a degree of honesty about the relationship that has been heretofore lacking on both sides.

Ian Buruma looks at the contemporary history of that relationship in The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.

My conversation with Ian Buruma: 

A Conversation with Brian Stelter

September 14th, 2020

Donald_Trump_Sean_Hannity_1088x725-700x470.jpgCNN's chief media correspondent Brian Stelter takes a deep look at Fox News, its power, and its stars in his new book Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.

My conversation with Brian Stelter.

A Spouse Also Runs: A Conversation with Chasten Buttigieg

September 8th, 2020

Screen%2BShot%2B2020-09-08%2Bat%2B2.48.39%2BPM.pngAs the late Richard Ben Cramer so brilliantly detailed in his seminal book “What it Takes.” running for president, as a serious candidate, is one of the hardest, most grueling and challenging things one can do. Cramer wrote about the 1988 campaign, before the internet, before 24/7 news and yet he said even then that politics had become a kind of a public utility, with hot-and cold-running politics any time of the day or night.

Today in our hyper politicized non stop news environment it’s even worse.

Now imagine breaking barriers and taboos along the way, as Pete Buttigieg did as the first LGBTQ candidate.

Just as challenging, again as Cramer wrote about, is being the spouse of the candidate. For Chasten Buttigieg, a 31 year old gay man with not political experience, he had only his own personal experience and history from which to draw upon.

He shares that journey in his new memoir I Have Something to Tell You: A Memoir.

My conversation with Chasten Buttigieg: 

Remember When Diplomacy and the Arts Once Mattered?

September 1st, 2020

Screen%2BShot%2B2020-09-01%2Bat%2B9.31.59%2BPM.pngImagine a time when diplomacy mattered.  When the arts mattered. And when they could actually work together to project America at its best. Oh how we might long for the days of the Cold War.

Clausewitz said that diplomacy was simply war by other means. During the Cold War, that diplomacy took many forms. From Richard Nixon showing Khrushchev around an American Kitchen, to Ping Pong diplomacy with the Chinese

A little known form of diplomacy was the role that the arts played in the Cold War. Uniquely in the realm of dance in the hands of one of its great practitioners, and leaders, Martha Graham. Although Graham claimed she was not political, her company and her work were a real part of America’s Cold War propaganda apparatus.

Victoria Phillips tells the story in Martha Graham's Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy

My conversation with Victoria Phillips:

McCarthy to Cohn to Trump: A conversation with Larry Tye

August 27th, 2020

Roy_Cohn_Joeseph_McCarthy_Hearings_Huddle_1088x725-700x470.jpgMost of you know or have lived in cities with long streets or boulevards and you know that some of the same stores repeat themselves over and over again. Starbucks, CVS, etc. The neighborhoods change, but some of the retail landmarks remain the same.

In a way, history is like that. It goes on and on. And while the neighborhoods often change, there are things along the way that repeat themselves over and over again. In American history, one of them is certainly racism and discrimination, but also our ongoing flirtation with authoritarianism. Our fascination with bullies, the appeal of strength that sometimes proves to be more than just meanness.... it’s really evil.

Whether it was Father Coughlin on radio, Joe Pyne on television, Huey Long in politics, or in the contemporary era, Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump.

The added reality is that each episode pushes the envelope of what’s acceptable. The predicate for new norms is laid out and the next would-be talk show host or political demagogue has to go further.

Perhaps no one pushed the envelope further than Joe McCarthy. So much so that the idea of McCarthyism became baked into our lexicon. Needless to say, now in the midst of one of those flirtations, it seems the perfect time to go back and look at Joe McCarthy with journalist and author Larry Tye, whose new book is Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy.

My conversation with Larry Tye:

Gail Sheehy: In Memoriam

August 25th, 2020

Screen%2BShot%2B2020-08-25%2Bat%2B10.36.19%2BAM.pngI guess it’s just that we are all getting older, but these In Memoriam programs are coming much too frequently lately…...Over the years I had the opportunity to do five interviews with Gail Sheehy. Beginning in May of 1998 we talked about everything from Men's Passages, to older women, Hillary Clinton, and the changes in middle America.  Our last conversation was in the fall of 2014 upon the publication of her memoir Daring: My Passages: A Memoir.

My conversation with Gail Sheehy from October of 2014:

Only The Best People: Why The Best and The Brightest Sometimes Aren’t

August 23rd, 2020

draperbook3000.jpgDonald Trump came to power on a wave of distrust. Americans had lost faith in government, it’s institutions, and the ability of their government to be honest with them.

It’s a through-line that begins perhaps with the assassination of John Kennedy, runs through the endless lies Americans endured about the Vietnam war, and continues through to the Iraq war; the lies about weapons of mass destruction.

And while Americans often want simple answers, the reality of policy, particularly foreign policy is far more nuanced and complex.

I have said over and over again of late, that I wish I could get into the time machine to read, 50 years from now, what historians will say about this period we are living through.

So it’s equally important that now, almost 20 years after 9/11 and 17 years after the start of the Iraq war that we can look with some perspective at the distrust that got us where we are today.

Again, the reality is nuanced, complicated and shaped by the foibles of human beings. Robert Draper tells that story in his new book To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq

My conversation with Robert Draper:

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