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:

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:
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